Now is the time to talk about next flood

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Joel Snell, guest columnist

It was in the early days of 1975. I was in a big room filled with engineers. They specialized in water hydrology. I was there on a sabbatical from a college nearby. My masters and post graduate work was in the social sciences. The folks there saw me at first as a mystic astrologer. My job was to indicate a number of social impacts on how water is used. This was the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

I had completed with a Dr. R. Gary Dean of Creighton University a 50 year alternatives projection of what a city west of here would be like in 2020. What we thought would happen has generally come to pass. I won over my brethren by finding out what they knew. Water is gold. Without water, we perish. The other problem is if there is too much water, overwhelming amounts of water, we become part of the ages.

What I did learn is that a 100-year flood plain does not mean that after a flood, there will probably be a flood in 100 years in the future. It could happen the next year. The 100-year flood plain is a complex formula that takes into account the slope of the land to the shoreline, runoff, and host of other variables that can be argued. However, it is generally accurate. The 2008 flood took us by surprise. The levy vote lost and secondary preparations were taken. In only eight years, those preparations brought much of the community together, but most would accept that it was not a joyous occasion.

So we probably feel that the Cedar River will become friendly to us for years to come. Maybe. However, we live in an ever-changing world. For whatever reasons, after a heavy winter and rainy spring, the ground becomes saturated. By summer, we are still facing rain and thunderstorms.

To add to that up the Cedar River, more development is established. That means more factories, suburban homes, highways, parking lots and shopping centers. A new building is erected where once there were trees and bushes to absorb water. All the above creates runoff.

New development in a state like Iowa where there is room for people, the facilities which generate jobs and multipliers of economic growth are generally very positive. Unfortunately, there is a downside. The more cement laid upstream the more likelihood of water rushing down in to the Cedar River. The more cement and structures, the more likely the water will rush down hard and fast. So we get flooded.

Years ago, flood protection began in other cities and the flood walls not only became more effective, but also more pretty.

But we continue to build more. This infrastructure can be built by American citizens. It can’t be outsourced. Traffic on balance should increase in the future and blockades do not have to be created. Cedar Rapids becomes an even more attractive city. A really ugly big flood comes along and we must take many steps backward.

You pay now or you pay even more in the future. There may be other choices. So it is now when we are fresh from a flood, that a conversation could begin.

• Joel C. Snell is professor emeritus of sociology from Kirkwood College.

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