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Flood offers us an opportunity to lead

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Marion and Rich Patterson, guest columnists

When the Cedar River rose to its second highest level recently, we were surprised to hear people state that they never expected to experience a flood again.

As warming oceans release ever more water into warmer air, humidity wafts thousands of miles until colliding with a cold air mass. Unprecedented downpours result with water cascading downstream. We see this almost nightly on the news as other places beyond Iowa are inundated. With accelerated climate change we can expect more frequent and higher flood crests.

We fear the aftermath of the recent flood will focus only on the construction of levees, here and in Louisiana, West Virginia, and elsewhere Levees create a false sense of security and encourage investment on their “dry” side. Unfortunately, there is no dry side. No matter how high enormously expensive levees are constructed sooner or later a flood will overtop them as the ever moister atmosphere dumps its water on the land.

However, silver linings brighten dark storm clouds. Most of Eastern Iowa survived the recent flood with minimal damage thanks in part to excellent forewarning, amazing teamwork, and a lower crest. But, we cannot expect that to always repeat. In our own best interest we must act to reduce flooding.

People must reverse the abuse of watersheds and respect and nurture their health. Previously both urban and rural practices have quickly voided rain off the land to surge downstream. We must encourage all landowners to retain stormwater on their property by installing a mix of permeable paving, bioswales, rain barrels, and tall vegetation that encourage infiltration. Topsoil is an enormous rain sponge that should not be scraped from new developments. Erosion is a flood’s best friend.

If citizens and businesses fail to voluntarily embrace these simple steps they might be required in the future.

It’s time to quit talking and “studying” and begin planting and carefully managing leafy buffer strips along every river and tributary everywhere. Expensive. Yup, but mucking filth out of basements and disrupting business isn’t cheap. The costs there exceed the monetary and extend to emotional and safety loss.

As the Cedar River rose the outlet of Cedar Lake ran in reverse. About 195 million gallons of floodwater backed from the river into the Lake and was gradually released as the river fell. Since the lake is upstream from downtown this water did not threaten businesses or homes. 195 million gallons is a small percentage of what rushed by town but, restoring dozens of wetlands upstream will gently hold billions of gallons of water, taking the steam out of flood crests helping communities downstream.

About a century and a half ago our nation shifted from a wood to a coal based economy and then from coal to petroleum. Each shift created enormous economic opportunity and enhanced employment. It’s time to shift from fossil to renewable energy sources that do not emit greenhouse gas. This shift also will enhance employment as workers retrain.

Iowa is perfectly poised to be the world leader in the transition to a carbon free economy. We’ve already made great strides. 31 percent of Iowa’s electricity comes from wind or solar. We have the technological knowledge and companies able to make us national leaders in the conversion. Let’s be proactive and show the world that reducing carbon boosts our economy and security.

As the Indian Creek Nature Center proves, buildings can be built efficiently with solar collectors that produce more energy than they consume. All new construction should follow this model, even if compelled by building codes. Expensive. Yup, but mucking out basements isn’t cheap.

Let’s move into the future with optimism and incorporate healthy watershed and atmosphere stewardship into our Iowa culture as we lead the world into a future more secure from severe weather.

• Marion and Rich Patterson own Winding Pathway LLC, a business designed to encourage people to create wondrous yards that are beautiful and environmentally healthy. They can be reached at www.windingpathways.com

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