Monday, June 3, 2013

Want to know more about the flooding in Iowa?

A Watershed Year: Anatomy of the Iowa Floods of 2008 by Cornelia F. Mutel is a great place to start.

From an earlier interview with Ms. Mutel

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.

How toxic were the floodwaters? Can we safely farm and garden and picnic in areas that were flooded?
We have an entire chapter discussing the many pollutants picked up by floodwaters—ranging from farm chemicals (e.g., pesticides, fertilizers, animal waste and all its bacteria and hormones) to complex urban chemicals, including industrial and residential chemical contaminants and the overflow from wastewater treatment plants. Tests of 2008 floodwaters indicated that the total amount of these contaminants was very large. The effect of this “chemical cocktail” of contaminants was worrisome for both humans and wildlife who came in contact with floodwaters. However, these contaminants would have been diluted by the tremendous volume of floodwater. Ongoing tests do not indicate any harmful accumulation of toxics in Cedar Rapids soil. Thus people can consider it safe to garden, farm, and picnic in previously flooded areas.

Were there any positive results from the flooding?
John Pearson’s chapter on nature’s response points out that floods have always been part of our landscape and that flooding is positive for floodplain ecosystems. Native floodplain species are adapted to the disruption caused by floods, and some even require periodic flooding for successful reproduction. Floods are considered destructive because we put ourselves and our structures in the wrong places at the wrong times.

On another level, data on climate indicate that midwestern weather is intensifying and becoming more extreme. The result is likely to be more extreme floods. The 2008 floods can serve as our wake-up call, prompting us to take steps that will reduce future flood damage. If we act appropriately, we could have a far better response to the future flooding that is sure to come—and that would indeed be a positive result.

Tell us more about the Iowa Flood Center.
This is an exciting new center at the University of Iowa. The IFC is the nation’s first academic research and training center devoted solely to flood research. It is a unique resource for Iowans and already has a number of products available on its website. For example, anyone can access current stream-level data from the IFC’s statewide network of 50 stream sensors. The web-based “Iowa Flood Information System” allows Iowans to view maps of watersheds upstream from their communities and overlay other data on these maps, such as current precipitation, river stage data, and water travel times throughout the watershed. This is an example of a powerful new tool that will help Iowans better understand flood risk and prepare for imminent floods. I’d encourage readers to look up their community and bookmark the website (

A Watershed Year will appeal to a wide range of general readers. What can the average citizen of Iowa and the Corn Belt do to help prevent floods?
Each of us can take steps in our own manner. Some people may work to reduce runoff, for example, by increasing soil health and water infiltration on our own property or by installing a rain garden or native plantings. Some may put pressure on public officials to revise flood policies or to prevent new construction in floodplains. Some may work to restore wetlands and uplands so they absorb and hold water more effectively. While only a few of us can address future flooding through our professions, all of us can continue to raise awareness of the potential damage of future floods.  I do believe that if each one of us took a few small steps to address future flooding, the results would be tremendous.

City planners, engineers, and policy makers will be particularly interested in this book. What’s the main message that A Watershed Year conveys to these specialists?
Don’t try to return to business as usual. By doing so, we return to an unacceptable vulnerability to future extreme floods, which are not only likely to continue but also (according to climate change predictions) likely to increase. Treat the 1993 and 2008 flooding as wake-up calls. Section 4 of A Watershed Year gives many recommendations for preventing or reducing the magnitude of future flood damage. The time to act on these recommendations is now.

—Cornelia F. Mutel, editor, A Watershed Year: Anatomy of the Iowa Floods of 2008

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