National Geographic was always a favorite magazine of mine as a kid and as an adult. As a self-professed geography geek, I am indebted to those folks for doing a us all great service by promoting awareness of our world, it’s resources, places, and people. It seems they’ve taken the largely forgotten “National Geography Awareness Week” (proclaimed by President H.W. Bush in the late 1980s) and brought it into the digital world. And more thrilling to a water-focused geography-geek, here is their slick web page, resources, and short video highlighting the importance of freshwater resources to ourselves and our globe. Check it out by going here. Enjoy!
For almost a month, I’ve been out of my office on a combination of vacation and work travel, so I admit that this blog has seemed a neglected alleyway off of the information superhighway. Well, there is nothing like a highly publicized, United Nations sponsored “Day” (with a capital “D”) to bring H2ONCoast back on-line.
Since 1993, the UN and a host of government agencies (such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), non-governmental organizations (such as Water For Life), and corporate entities (such as PepsiCo) have been marking March 22nd as World Water Day. This year’s theme could not be more important: “Clean Water for a Healthy World.” Today’s theme reminds us that water quantity is not the only issue–quality is another ever more vexing one. Every drop of pollution to the world’s freshwater supplies leads to less water available overall, and ultimately to greater water stress for the people of the planet.
This might seem pretty obvious, but consider this: of all of the world’s freshwater, less than 1% is immediately available for our use as fresh water. And that water is not distributed evenly; nearly 1 billion people worldwide live with constant scarcity. For example, as much as 50% of China is now deep into three years of drought that has reduced drinking water supplies by as much as 75% in some communities. For an excellent rundown of the last month’s news on water–and a fitting place to visit for World Water Day, I recommend Circle of Blue’s excellent water news roundup. The sweep of politics, economics, science and technology behind the world of water that most of us take for granted is pretty stunning to me, at least.
Lastly, to commemorate World Water Day, I cannot recommend enough a look at the photos just published on-line by the National Geographic Society. To me, these truly symbolize the power, promise and peril of our watery–and changing–world. You can check them out at the Boston Globe’s on-line presence. Their April 2010 edition will be devoted solely to water.
Water wonks are all atwitter (sorry–bad pun) about this relatively well-researched series on water quality just published in the New York Times (as of last week). Those of you who haven’t already seen it, check it out here: http://projects.nytimes.com/toxic-waters.
My only small criticism of the accompanying interactive maps–especially the map focusing on discharge violations– is that the database from which it is drawn (the Environmental Protection Agency & Google) seems to have errors in it for locations on the N. Coast. Despite that, one fun exercise is to look closely at the dense number of violations in NY state and then move over to Oregon–and then think about how good we have it here! On the other hand, we have our work cut out for ourselves to keep this state from looking like NY someday.
Kudos to the Gray Lady for their reporting on this relatively marginalized issue for mainstream media outlets, especially in a time when infrastructure and environmental quality are getting a second look in both the halls of power and on main streets nationwide.
There is much talk of infrastructure out there in the media these days. This is because infrastructure–the roads, buildings, water systems, sewers, schools, rails and hundreds of other physically engineered underpinnings of modern life in 21st century America–are getting a giant monetary shot in the arm. A sizable chunk of the $700 plus billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act advanced by the Obama administration was aimed to rebuild, improve or expand infrastructure. That money has begun to take roost in thousands of projects around the country. You can get an interesting look at these by viewing a ProPublica website detailing who spends what and where it goes. Over $7 billion went specifically to water projects according to the Water Environment Federation.
In Oregon, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act poured $44 million into the state’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund, $28 million into the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, and about $4.5K into water quality planning (604b) grants.
With regards to water, we are mostly concerned with two kinds of infrastructure. The first are the water systems that deliver it in a usable and (usually) safe state to million of drinking water taps, agricultural fields, businesses, parks or public spaces.
The second chunk of infrastructure takes the waste water away from our fields, parks, homes and businesses. That infrastructure is critical from an engineering, industrial, and public safety perspective. Often the water is laced with bacteria from human and animal waste, organic chemicals and heavy metals from our industrial processes, flushes petroleum from roads, carries fertilizers and pesticides from agriculture, gardens, and landscaping. For much of human history, we disposed of that water with the idea that “dilution is the solution to pollution,” in that we got rid of it quickly enough and far enough away from human settlements, it would no longer be a problem. In cities and towns, we focused on sewers to transport and treat human or commercial waste, and stormsewers for the water that falls on our hard surfaces (i.e., those that don’t absorb water the way a native landscape of plants and soil normally do). In all cases, we have designed convenient ways to ferry water out of town and into the nearest water body where it will dilute and go away. Unfortunately, we have discovered that there is no “away” for stormwater and its pollutants.
All of this we call “gray” infrastructure. And it’s in serious need of work, but also some re-thinking. One way to look at the dilemma of what to do with stormwater and its expensive, deteriorating infrastructure is to try to replace it where possible with “green infrastructure.” What is “green infrastructure”? The non-profit Conservation Fund defines it this way:
Green infrastructure is strategically planned and managed networks of natural lands, working landscapes and other open spaces that conserve ecosystem values and functions and provide associated benefits to human populations.
The foundation of green infrastructure networks are their natural elements – woodlands, wetlands, rivers, grasslands – that work together as a whole to sustain ecological values and functions. Healthy functioning natural or restored ecological systems are essential to ensure the availability of the network’s ecological services.
Additional elements and functions can then be added to the network, depending on the desires and needs of the designers – working lands, trails and other recreational features, cultural and historic sites. These all can be incorporated into green infrastructure networks that contribute to the health and quality of life for America’s communities.
In the case of stormwater management, we should consider the native and urban forests, native and non-native landscapes as places to absorb and process rainwater, to offset the negative impacts of building more hard surfaces (rooftops, sidewalks, roadways, parking lots, etc.) which generate more stormwater runoff. We can look at it at multiple scales as the Conservation Fund notes:
While green infrastructure planning occurs at a broad ‘landscape scale,’ elements of the over-arching network can be found at all scales, from state-wide, to the county, city, and parcel/site scale. Critical elements of the implementation strategy, such as low-impact development practices (LID), conservation developments, green/grey interface, etc., are necessary components to any successful green infrastructure plan, and are frequently found at the site/parcel scale.
Part of the problem then with the current thinking about stimulating the economy and re-building the United States’ infrastructure is that much of the money that is focused on water is NOT focused on protecting the natural landscapes or hydrologic process that sustain clean water at the source, or keep it from becoming a problem like stormwater that we must dispose at our expense. Unfortunately, it seems that we have a tendency to do exactly what Albert Einstein noted was a bad idea: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
Let’s try hard to think differently this time. As we make decisions on whether to build (or improve) the stormsewer for that development just outside of town, why not try some smart site design to save most of the existing vegetation on or adjacent to the site. Let’s think about restoring or conserving the green infrastructure before rebuilding all of the gray. If the analysis of Low Impact Development by the good folks at EcoNorthwest is correct, it might even save us some green.
The February 2nd edition of High Country News published a great story related to the Rapanos v. United States decision to declare that rivers without navigable status are not subject to the regulation of the Clean Water Act. This U.S. Supreme Court decision was a hugely important one for those interested in the regulation of pollution in rivers and other U.S. waterbodies.
So what do I mean by navigable rivers? The Clean Water Act protects all waters of the United States from excessive pollution and destructive development for agriculture or urban uses. Rapanos essentially removed those waters that were not deemed navigable—or unable to accommodate boat traffic—from protected status. In parts of the west that aren’t as blessed with free flowing surface water as the maritime PNW, this is a critical issue. Desert washes and even tiny trickling streams (in our region) still provide innumerable benefits to their surrounding environment, but might not be navigable, except in cases of flooding. Wetlands too are affected by the decision, though they often directly connect to rivers during flooding. This is also frequently the case with most streams in the desert Southwest (my home turf).
The court case revolved around a Michigan shopping center developer named John Rapanos who filled in 50 acres of wetlands without a permit. He was taken to court and found guilty of violating the Clean Water Act. The fines were huge. Rapanos appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Justice Antonin Scalia’s opinion took the U.S. Army Corps to task for “stretching the term [navigable] beyond parody.” As a result of the split decision, the two federal agencies with the most power to regulate U.S. waters—the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps—devised a highly technical process for determining the relationship between smaller tributaries (even dry ones) and the mainstem of a stream. This is known as the “nexus test” (or showing a “significant nexus of relationships between a distant tributary and a receiving water body). As a result, the agencies have to do a very difficult analysis that has left developers such as John Rapanos scratching their heads. Rather than clarifying things, the Rapanos decision made the waters considerably murkier.
Once the Rapanos decision became case law, however, the Army Corps was able to remove many streams from protection, meaning that developers could build in the channel itself, and upland pollution sources that affected it would not be governed by the same legal tools as those provided by the Clean Water Act. The EPA too dropped many cases of Clean Water Act violations it had been pursuing because they could not prove a “nexus.”
One Army Corps biologist, Heather Wylie, joined a group of kayakers and canoeists to travel down the largely concrete Los Angeles River in Southern California after it too had been declared non-navigable by her agency. Their journey was meant to highlight that “navigable” was a more flexible category than the feds had applied to the LA or other major streams in the arid West. For that act, Wylie was suspended and then laid off. She has since become a symbol to environmental and property rights activists alike. The story of this relatively obscure court decision and its repercussions for both sides of the debate is worth a read. You can view it by clicking here. Heather’s story also appears in a short YouTube video titled “Heather and Goliath”. Below are some other links to the Clean Water Act and the Rapanos decision:
The actual U.S. Supreme Court decision: http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/04-1034.ZS.html
National Public Radio story: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5226083
Understanding the Clean Water Act (River Network): http://www.rivernetwork.org/rn/cwa/aboutcwa
U.S. EPA Clean Water Act website: http://www.epa.gov/oecaagct/lcwa.html
One thing is as certain as death and taxes: whenever the federal government proposes new spending, whether realized or not, there will be a veritable chorus of voices informing the public and elected officials about where and how to allocate that spending. This is certainly the case with the incoming Obama Administration’s proposed “largest investment in infrastructure since the National Highway System.” Groups ranging from American Rivers, Save Our Environment, the American Automobile Association, America 2050, and the National Academy of Sciences have all rolled out talking points to guide the new push to dole out something near $600 billion in proposed spending.
The motivations of these myriad groups varies widely. Some are quite ideological in bent, others may have their hands out, while others are claiming logic is in their favor. One group that seems to fall into the last category is American 2050, which is composed of a coalition of regional planners, scholars, and policy-makers. The groups mission is “to develop a framework for the nation’s future growth that considers trends such as:
- Rapid population growth and demographic change
- Global climate change
- The rise in foreign trade
- Sprawling and inefficient land use patterns
- Uneven and inequitable growth within and between regions
- Infrastructure systems that are reaching capacity
- The emergence of megaregions” (mapped out here)
As Wired Magazine put it, American 2050 has urged everyone with their hands on the purse strings to slow down, take a deep breath, and do the following:
- Fix what’s broken – Before we start dumping money and resources into splashy new projects, repair what we already have. Fixing decrepit bridges and crumbling roads isn’t as sexy as building a high-speed rail line or water treatment plant, but it must come first.
- Phase it in – Just as you can’t run a marathon without training, you can’t spend hundreds of billions of dollars without planning. Although there are many “shovel ready” projects we must tackle, Obama must consider the big picture. Establishing clear goals, setting timelines for reaching them and building capacity before digging in will increase the chance of project success.
- Go green – Infrastructure projects that keep us chained to fossil fuels won’t do much good in the long run. Yes, we must fix our roads and bridges, but we also must prioritize initiatives that will protect the environment and push us toward sustainable energy and transportation.
- Train the workforce – Creating jobs through infrastructure spending is more difficult than simply handing out shovels. America 2050 calls for a methodical job training program to provide workers with the skills they need to do the job and make sure we get top-notch work out of them.
- Count – Developing metrics to measure the effectiveness of completed projects will help ensure smart spending on future projects. This one seems like a no-brainer.
All of these points are good ones from the perspective of this specialized perch on the North Coast of Oregon. There is a point to be made however: what about the rural areas outside of those “megaregions”? Tillamook and Clatsop Counties, as well as the rest of the Oregon coast are struggling to meet infrastructure needs, including crumbling roads, strained sewer systems, aging water treatment facilities and abundant problems managing stormwater runoff and floods. These counties have felt the sting of declines in timber receips, while at the same time seeing a housing bubble burst as beach homes lag on the real estate market for years. And already these communities were distressed. Check out the new OSU Rural Communities Explorer website for more information on the state of rural (and coastal) Oregon.
While there is no arguing that cities with large numbers of constituents can lay rightful claim to much of the money and projects that will help their sagging economies and sagging infrastructure, denizens of the rural hinterlands around them will likely request a share of the pie, especially as these communities now feed the urban centers with in-migrants, while urbanites use the hinterlands for recreation, food and timber production. So the quandary is thus: can $600 billion be spread broadly enough to raise the fortunes of the cities AND the towns surrounding them? Or will we see a further nourishment of the megaregions while the economic losers in the game will continue to be the periphery? Time and politics will tell.
And by the way, water-focused environmental group American Rivers has put out “A New Agenda for Water” that makes some interesting points, a couple of which I disagree with, but many that seem spot on for any water wonks to consider in the newly appointed ranks of the departments of Interior, Transportation, Commerce, Energy, Agriculture, or the Environmental Protection Agency. Check it out.
I am a long-time fan of the western environmental publication High Country News. This dusty and crusty news magazine has been around since the 1970s and dispenses some great journalism, opinion and thought on the unique Western issues from the full spectrum of perspectives out of booming cities like Denver, Phoenix and Los Angeles to struggling rural hinterlands. My only criticism is that the stories tend to cover issues eminating from the Intermountain region more than the coastal states. But all in all, HCN writers and editors seem to have a special penchant for covering water issues (often quite well in my professional opinion).
HCN’s latest November 21st issue has a cover story on the resurgence (or potential) desalinization plants to service the thirsty masses in California–if only the energy costs were reasonable. More germane to H2ONCoast, however, is a nice round up of some–shall we say, uniue–Western approaches to extracting more water from a dry landscape. Included in that list is the idea of tapping the Columbia for NW profit while slaking thirst further southward. I’m serving up that list here for your edification with many thanks to HCN’s Jonathan Thompson for unearthing the compendium:
- Tamarisk removal
Tamarisk — which infests some 1 million acres in the West — chokes out willows and cottonwoods, and ruins beaches. It also slurps up lots of water — some say a single tamarisk drinks 200 gallons per day. Estimated cost to remove it? $3,000 per acre, though newer methods, such as tamarisk-eating beetles, are cheaper.
- Logging for water
In 2002, as Colorado was racked by drought, the state proposed something drastic: Clear-cutting its forests to increase runoff. Fewer trees, the theory goes, would result in more snow on the ground — it was proven on a small scale in Wyoming. Most people just laughed at the idea because of the high cost and environmental impacts.
- The Big Straw
Hear that sucking sound? This scheme would have had a 200-mile pipeline carrying Colorado River water from the Utah border back, uphill, to the Front Range of Colorado. The idea was born in the 1980s, discarded, then reborn during the 2002 drought. It’s dead again, at least until the next devastating dry spell.
- “Oregon’s Oil”
The Colorado River provides water to about three times the population of Oregon and Washington combined, but it has less than one-tenth the water of the Northwest’s Columbia River. So why not pipe water from the Columbia down to the Southwest? It’s been considered since the 1960s, and just last year, Oregon State Sen. David Nelson began pushing the idea in earnest again to generate revenue for his state. He figures sending some 1 million acre-feet of water southward would net his state about $3 billion per year. The salmon may not like the idea, but if it’s not done, says Nelson, “Oregon will become the Appalachia of the West.”
- Pipe dreams
The idea of funneling water from one river basin to another is pretty old hat. But these days, thirsty Western communities are getting more ambitious. Utah’s proposed Lake Powell Pipeline would move 100,000 acre-feet of water across 177 miles to three booming counties in southwestern Utah at a cost of at least $1 billion. There’s also the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s $2 billion-$3.5 billion proposal to pump up to 167,000 acre-feet of groundwater from the state’s basin and range country through 327 miles of pipeline to Las Vegas. In Colorado, businessman Aaron Million has proposed a privately financed $2 billion-$4 billion, 400-mile-long pipeline that would transport water from Utah’s Flaming Gorge Reservoir through Wyoming to Colorado’s Front Range cities.
- Bagging it
During dry 2002, Alaska businessman Ric Davidge proposed filling giant poly-fiber bags with 13 million gallons of water each from Northern California’s Gualala River, and then towing them with barges and tugs all the way down the coast to San Diego. The Gualala locals weren’t so happy, and when the California Coastal Commission voted to oppose the measure, Davidge withdrew the plan.
- Strange brew
Conceived in the 1950s, the North American Water and Power Alliance would have moved water from Canada to the Southwest and Great Plains via an ambitious network of pipes and canals, including a giant pump in Montana to clear the Rockies. It actually gained favor on a federal level in the 1960s, but faded into wacky water obscurity by the 1970s. In recent years, the idea has surfaced again.
While studying the source of a couple of wells, Sandoval County, N.M., officials recently discovered an aquifer near the rapidly growing city of Rio Rancho that contains some 4 million acre-feet of water, or enough for a city of 300,000 people for 100 years (75,000 people now live in the city). Rio Rancho officials now have visions of even more growth. Problem is, the water’s brackish, so it must be desalinated. Cost to build the pumping and desalting facility? $47 million.
- Off the roof
In order to harvest rainwater in Colorado, one must navigate onerous state water laws. Not so in one arid Arizona city. In October, Tucson became the first city in the U.S. to require commercial developments to harvest rainwater. Under the law, which takes effect in 2010, developers will have to get half of their landscaping water from the roof.
- Seeding the clouds
Of all the unconventional solutions to drought, “seeding” rain clouds with silver iodide to increase precipitation is the most widely implemented. Ski areas fund cloud-seeding efforts in Colorado, power companies support it in Idaho and Los Angeles County is forking out $800,000 this year to seed clouds over the San Gabriel Mountains. Problem is, it may not work: It’s true that introducing particles into moisture-laden clouds can help create raindrops, but there’s not enough conclusive evidence to determine if and how much extra precipitation this may create in a specific spot. And if it does work, is it just stealing rain from those downwind? A five-year study in Wyoming, costing more than $8 million, is under way in hopes of answering these questions. Regardless of its actual effectiveness, it’s valuable as a sort of meteorological placebo: Ski areas tout cloud-seeding programs in their marketing propaganda, and water managers get to say they’re actually doing something about the weather. Meanwhile, conservation-minded folks say that it would make more sense to spend that money on efficiency measures, such as low-flow toilets and showerheads.
Modern-day cloud seeding may have its roots in the mysterious craft of Charles Mallory Hatfield. Back in the early 1900s, Hatfield built a tower in the San Gabriels from which he disseminated his secret concoction of 23 chemicals into the air in order to create rain. After a storm came, local ranchers paid him $1,000 for his “moisture acceleration” talents. Later, the city of San Diego hired him. A few days after he set up his tower, a deluge struck, breaking a dam and wreaking havoc. The city never paid him.
I have quoted and echoed these thoughts here before: people living on the coastlines of the world are helping to create the damage and hardship that high-intensity coastal storms bring. Before anyone claims that I’m blaming the victims here, let me articulate a subtler argument. As people and resources (ports, businesses, expensive homes, etc.) are concentrated on coast lines, storms can yield greater damage. Seems like a simple argument, right?
Unfortunately, most of humanity is not heeding it: worldwide the proportion of people (rich and poor) living on the coastlines is increasing. By mid-century, the world population is expected to be at least 80% concentrated on coastlines. In the United States, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its document Population Trends Along the Coastal United States: 1980-2008, the total number of people living on our coasts will grow by 7 million, up from 153 million as of 2003. That’s about 53% of the nation’s total population.
Regardless of whether storm intensity increases due to climate change, population increases and concentrations of wealth and economic resources on coast lines will mean bigger losses with each storm.
The on-line version of Time Magazine has a nice article on the subject with references to some of the harder literature backing up these claims. Here is a quote from the article that makes up the crux of the issue:
“If climate change is having an effect on the intensities of storms, it’s not obvious in the historical weather data. And whatever effect it is having is much, much smaller than the effect of development along coastlines. In fact, if you look at all storms from 1900 to 2005 and imagine today’s populations on the coasts, as Roger Pielke Jr., and his colleagues did in a 2008 “Natural Hazards Review” paper, you would see that the worst hurricane would have actually happened in 1926.
If it happened today, the Great Miami storm would have caused from $140 billion to $157 billion in damages. (Hurricane Katrina, the costliest storm in U.S. history, caused $100 billion in losses.) “There has been no trend in the number or intensity of storms at landfall since 1900,” says Pielke, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado. “The storms themselves haven’t changed.”
What’s changed is what we’ve put in storms’ way. Crowding together in coastal cities puts us at risk on a few levels. First, it is harder for us to evacuate before a storm because of gridlock. And in much of the developing world, people don’t get the kinds of early warnings that Americans get. So large migrant populations — usually living in flimsy housing — get flooded out year after year. That helps explain why Asia has repeatedly been the hardest hit area by disasters in recent years.
Secondly, even if we get everyone to safety, we still have more stuff in harm’s way than ever before. So each big hurricane costs more than the big one before it, even controlling for inflation.”
I should note that the North Coast is not easily comparible in terms of shear population or rates of growth to places like Mumbai or Miami-Dade. We have seen, however, an increasing trend towards establishing wealthy second home development in the region (thus increasing our potential for greater losses). With a wave of new retirements within the Baby Boomers, we can expect to see more of this in the long-run. Communities such as Tillamook and Warrenton have also extended their business development into floodplains and low-lying areas on estuaries (also increasing the potential for losses when high water comes). What is the take-home lesson here? Coastal communities must think in terms of development that will make them more resilient in the face of storms and floods, not more vulnerable. That means thinking about where we place development, how we manage the natural systems that protect us from the worst of storm damage, and ways to increase prepardeness among the incoming population.
I’m stealing liberally from my colleague Michael Campana’s Water Wired here. An old friend argued to me once that all research is just stealing with citations, anyway. Yet, this topic was just too good to pass up, especially given my provenance as a Southwestern water geek now transplanted to the PNW. Here’s the tale: long ago, in a galaxy far away, water managers in California tapped rivers far to the North of the state’s population bulges in the South and Central regions, built massive dams and aqueducts that dewatered whole valleys to fuel the booming megaregions. Working with colleagues, water lawyers and politicos in seven states and two nations, they also successfully plumbed the mighty Colorado to supply over 30 million people with water. The time was the early to mid-20th century and the “we can engineer a better future” mentality was riding high. At the same time, a few water wonks speculated that the Columbia River–exceeding the Colorado’s flow by about 10 times–could play a role in future growth or drought scenarios. “Ridiculous!” many shouted, “that’s both unfeasible and unnecessary!”
Well, to quote Bob Dylan, “the times, they are a-changin’.” It seems that some would quite seriously speculate that we’ve arrived in one one of those scenarios. As the reservoirs in the mighty Colorado dwindle under the weight of 8 years of serious drought (a good winter notwithstanding) and even more serious population growth, it seems that the basin’s states are contemplating just this sort of action (among others that include giant plastic-wrapped icebergs). Searching for answers to the persistent question of “where will we get our water from,” managers are dredging up ideas that seem at face value to be technically impossible, politically unfeasible, and economically unpalatable: extending a giant straw to the Colombia (likely inserted at–forgive the pun–the mouth) in order to send some precious water southward.
And Oregonians are contemplating what the water could cost and how we might facilitate selling it to them. Think this is politically wild science fiction? Sound like something out of Robert Ludlum meets Marc Riesner? Think again and read Michael Milstein’s piece in yesterday’s Oregonian. While you’re at it, check out the Aquadoc’s word on it too. And don’t forget to take a look at the press release put out by Oregon State Sen. David Nelson (R-Pendelton) who proposes to sell 1 million acre-feet to out-of-state communities (read: the thirsty Southwest). While this is still pretty speculative, the times they are a-changin’!
Residents of Tillamook County, OR should have some serious empathy for those in the flood-ravaged Midwest. After all, we’ve had two record floods two years in a row. But there are some lessons to be learned from the case of Iowa as the following story from Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post (June 19 edition) points out. While the picture is—forgive the pun—muddy, the modification of the landscape in Iowa and the entire Midwest may be exacerbating the capacity of the region’s streams to hold, release and convey water during extreme rainfall events. H2ONC certainly agrees with that assessment and points to large-scale landscape modification in our own basins as reason to take heed of lessons from Iowa.
As the Cedar River rose higher and higher, and as he stacked sandbags along the levee protecting downtown Cedar Falls, Kamyar Enshayan, a college professor and City Council member, kept asking himself the same question: “What is going on?”
The river would eventually rise six feet higher than any flood on record. Farther downstream, in Cedar Rapids, the river would break the record by more than 11 feet.
Enshayan, director of an environmental center at the University of Northern Iowa, suspects that this natural disaster wasn’t really all that natural. He points out that the heavy rains fell on a landscape radically reengineered by humans. Plowed fields have replaced tallgrass prairies. Fields have been meticulously drained with underground pipes. Streams and creeks have been straightened. Most of the wetlands are gone. Flood plains have been filled and developed.
“We’ve done numerous things to the landscape that took away these water-absorbing functions,” he said. “Agriculture must respect the limits of nature.”
Officials are still trying to understand all the factors that contributed to Iowa’s flooding, and not everyone has the same suspicions as Enshayan. For them, the cause was obvious: It rained buckets and buckets for days on end. They say the changes in land use were lesser factors in what was really just a case of meteorological bad luck.
But some Iowans who study the environment suspect that changes in the land, both recently and over the past century or so, have made Iowa’s terrain not only highly profitable but also highly vulnerable to flooding. They know it’s a hard case to prove, but they hope to get Iowans thinking about how to reduce the chances of a repeat calamity.
“I sense that the flooding is not the result of a 500-year event,” said Jerry DeWitt, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. “We’re farming closer to creeks, farming closer to rivers. Without adequate buffer strips, the water moves rapidly from the field directly to the surface water.”
Corn alone will cover more than a third of the state’s land surface this year. The ethanol boom that began two years ago encouraged still more cultivation.
Between 2007 and 2008, farmers took 106,000 acres of Iowa land out of the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to keep farmland uncultivated, according to Lyle Asell, a special assistant for agriculture and environment with the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR). That land, if left untouched, probably would have been covered with perennial grasses with deep roots that help absorb water.
The basic hydrology of Iowa has been changed since the coming of the plow. By the early 20th century, farmers had installed drainage pipes under the surface to lower the water table and keep water from pooling in what otherwise could be valuable farmland. More of this drainage “tiling” has been added in recent years. The direct effect is that water moves quickly from the farmland to the streams and rivers.
“We’ve lost 90 percent of our wetlands,” said Mary Skopec, who monitors water quality for the Iowa DNR.
Crop rotation may also play a subtle role in the flooding. Farmers who may have once grown a number of crops are now likely to stick to just corn and soybeans — annual plants that don’t put down deep roots.
Another potential factor: sediment. “We’re actually seeing rivers filling up with sediment, so the capacity of the rivers has changed,” Asell said. He said that in the 1980s and 1990s, Iowa led the nation in flood damage year after year.
This landscape wasn’t ready for the kind of deluge that hit Iowa in May and early June. Central and eastern portions of the state received 15 inches of rain. That came on top of previous rains that had left the soil saturated. Worse, the rain came at the tail end of an unusually cool spring. Farmers had delayed planting their crops. The deluge struck a nearly naked landscape of small plants and black dirt.
“With that volume of rain, you’re going to have flooding. There’s just no way around it,” said Donna Dubberke, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in the Quad Cities. “This is not just because someone put in a parking lot.”
The rising Mississippi River is expected to peak this week, threatening towns and farmland north of St. Louis as floodwaters continue to move down the river. So far, flooding and severe weather have killed at least 24 people in three states and injured 106, forced the evacuations of about 40,000, and driven corn prices to record highs.
Two levees burst just north of Quincy, Ill., yesterday morning, forcing the evacuation of the small town of Meyer. Yesterday afternoon, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) visited the town after viewing the nearby Sny Island Levee, about 12 miles downstream from Quincy and, at 54 miles long, the second-biggest levee on the Mississippi.
In Iowa, the National Weather Service has reported record flooding at 12 locations on four rivers, including the Cedar, the Iowa, the Wapsipinicon and the Mississippi. The U.S. Geological Survey has preliminary data showing 500-year floods on the Cedar, the Shell Rock, the Upper Iowa and the Nodaway.
The Great Flood of 2008 has, for many inhabitants of sandbagged Iowa, come awfully soon after the Great Flood of 1993. Or, as Elwynn Taylor, a meteorologist at Iowa State University, put it: “Why should we have two 500-year floods within 15 years?”
Taylor attributes the flooding in recent years to cyclical climate change: The entire Midwest, he says, has been in a wet cycle for the past 30 years.
There has also been speculation that global warming could be a factor.
“Something in the system has changed,” said Pete Kollasch, a remote-sensing analyst with the Iowa DNR. “The only thing I can point my finger at is global warming, but there’s no proof of that.”
Jeri Neal, a program leader for ecological systems and research at Iowa State’s Leopold Center, said all these things have a cumulative effect on the landscape: “It doesn’t have the resilience built into it that you need to withstand disturbances in the system.”
The idea of a 500-year flood can be confusing. Hydrologists use the term to indicate a flooding event that they believe has a 0.2 percent chance — 1 in 500 — of happening in any given year in a specific location. A 100-year flood has a 1 in 100 chance of happening, and so on. Such estimates are based on many years of data collection, in some cases going back a century or more.
But the database can be spotty. Robert Holmes, national flood coordinator with the U.S. Geological Survey, said a lack of funding since 1999 has forced his agency to discontinue hundreds of stream gauges across the country. “It’s not sexy to fund stream flow gauges,” he said.
What’s certain is that a lot of water had nowhere to go when the sky opened over Iowa this spring. Some rivers did things they’d never done before. The flood stage at Cedar Rapids, for example, is 12 feet. The previous record flood happened in 1929, when the Cedar hit 20 feet. This year the Cedar hit 20 feet and kept rising. Experts predicted it would crest at 22 feet, and then upped the estimate to 24 feet. The river had other ideas. At mid-morning last Friday, it finally crested at 31.3 feet.
The entire downtown was flooded and a railroad bridge collapsed, dumping rail cars filled with rock into the river.
“Cities routinely build in the flood plain,” Enshayan said. “That’s not an act of God; that’s an act of City Council.”
Staff writer Kari Lydersen contributed to this report from Quincy, Ill.