Wednesday, March 3, 2010

An Interview with Cornelia F. Mutel: Part 1

The first question everyone will ask you is, Why did these floods happen? The next question is, How can we keep them from happening again?
Well, the entire book answers these questions, both of which are complex. Very simply answered, the floods resulted from a very wet fall, winter, and spring, combined with a unique timing of June precipitation events. The latter resulted in river flows, especially in the Cedar River watershed, to a degree that we have not seen before. Preventing recurrence of such extreme events will require a multitude of changes in the way we manage our land in floodplains and also throughout the watershed. We need to promote water’s absorption on uplands and slow its release into rivers, but we also need to realize that floodplains are functionally part of a river, not sites to build structures that are easily damaged.

You started working on A Watershed Year right after the June 2008 flood. The book contains a multitude of voices, yet the essays read like one continuous narrative. Tell us about editing and organizing them.
I quickly learned that each author had his or her own knowledge base and writing style. I worked hard to edit content and ensure clarity without distorting these unique, author-specific qualities. Nearly all the book chapters were revised between five and ten times. During this demanding and tedious process, every author seemed as determined as I was to create the very best book possible. They all responded graciously to my critiques, revising their chapters repeatedly without complaint. The authors’ dedication and effort made the book project a true pleasure. 

The book’s chapter order and structure continued to evolve until the project was nearly completed. One of the tricks was to remain open to this creative and sometimes chaotic evolution, even as I was shaping the book. The book really came together toward the end of the editing process, when I wrote the section introductions—an effort that I enjoyed tremendously.

In the course of working on this book, you did an enormous amount of research into the causes of floods. What surprised you most?

The disjunct between what we know and what we do. A Watershed Year clearly indicates that we understand our weather and flooding with increasing sophistication, and we know what to do to prevent flood damage: change land use and floodplain policies, increase perennial plant cover on uplands, increase water infiltration, decrease impermeable surfaces in cities, etc. We need to look at long-term changes over the entire floodplain and plan for major as well as minor flood events. Yet policies and actions are too often based on short-term interests and ignore the greater long-term good for the greater number of people. This needs to change.

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