Des Moines Register: Event Focuses on Future of Flooding

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

By Mike Klein
Des Moines Register

Iowans are hearing the dreaded word again - flooding. That's why tonight's presentation at the Iowa State Historical Building is so timely, as is the release of a new book by the same title, "A Watershed Year: Anatomy of the Iowa Floods of 2008" (University of Iowa Press, $19).

The question: When will Iowans start listening to the scientific lessons provided in the book and respond en masse?

Connie Mutel, the book's editor and one of seven presenters at the forum, wonders when the "social tipping point" will occur, when public pressure influences policy-makers to take action.

The book gathered experts in many fields to determine what happened in 2008 to create extreme flooding. Some misperceptions were cleared up.

"I'd love to say this was the result of use of the land. That simply wasn't the case," said Mutel, historian and archivist at IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering at the University of Iowa.

A "perfect storm" occurred in 2008, she said. The fall's saturated soils were then blanketed with heavy winter snow. During Iowa's second typical flood peak in June, runoff from storms upstream joined heavy rains at exact locations in the watershed downstream that would create a disaster.

The results was substantial financial and social costs to cities in Eastern Iowa, especially Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.

"It was a fluke," Mutel said.

Flooding has always occurred in Iowa and, as written by naturalists in the book, provides benefits to some species. It's a natural process. But the modified and developed landscape has made the floods more severe and damaging and less likely to handle aberrant weather events.

The Iowa landscape, two-thirds covered by row crops, is drained by field tiles that create deeper, faster-moving rivers prone to more extreme flooding than in pre-settlement days. Then, fields of prairie, timber and wetlands absorbed more of the water.

Fighting the economic powers of agriculture and city development that use the land on or around the flood plains is difficult.

After the floods of 1993, which caused $22 billion in damages, the White House established an Interagency Floodplain Management Review Committee to find out what should be done to prevent flood losses in the future

The 50 recommendations, including better levee systems and changing land-use practices, were largely ignored, wrote Gerald E. Galloway of the University of Maryland in the book.

Mutel said Iowans must begin thinking of the flood plain as a living part of any river. Prohibiting development on 500-year flood plains instead of 100-year flood plains would help.

The Corn Belt, Mutel writes in the book's epilogue, "should become a provider of environmental health, rather than be narrowly viewed a site of agricultural commodity production.

In other countries, such as China, that is occurring. The government is investing $100 billion to create "ecological function zones that support flood control throughout the country."

"The problem is not that floods occur," Mutel said. "The problem is we don't plan accordingly."