It’s been 10 years since we last spoke, but the deep, muddy voice was unmistakable.
“Long time, no talk, column guy,” said the Cedar River as I walked along its bank a few days ago.
You might, or might not, recall my May 29, 2008, column detailing a conversation I had with the river. The local waterway was concerned about big development dreams tied to what was then called “The Year of the River.” I published our exchange. Questions about my sanity were raised.
And then, just weeks later, the chatty river became a loud, raging torrent, rising past 31 feet and swamping the heart of Cedar Rapids. It left behind muck and stink and billions of dollars in damage. The “Year of the River,” indeed. Try the decade of recovery.
“You’ve got some explaining to do,” I said to the Cedar. My dad tone scared away a nearby goose.
“Look, I’m a stay-at-home, stay-between-the banks-and-chill-out kind of river, really I am. My mantra is ‘Not too high, not too low,’” the river gurgled. “I have no interest in expanding into downtown again. How would I even know where to go, what with that tangle of pavement markings and bike lanes and two-way streets suddenly becoming one-ways? I don’t need the stress.
“But when the rain comes, I don’t have much choice. In 2008, the rain just kept coming, and all that water transformed me into the (beeping) Mississippi. Suddenly, I was in basements and living rooms, museums and businesses, Time Check, the Czech Village and Rompot. I busted through the 100 and 500 year flood plains, and kept on going. And that horrid smell, how embarrassing.
“I was out of control. Dazed and confused. It was the worst week of my life, and I’ve been around for thousands of years,” said the river, clearly crestfallen.
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“I’m very sorry for what happened,” the river whispered. “But it wasn’t intentional. Believe me.”
The tide of remorse running through the river’s mea culpa did seem genuine. It has been a decade since its epic rise. You can hardly blame a river for flooding.
“Well, I suppose it is all just water under the bridge now,” I said, instantly regretting it.
“Ten years flow by and you’re still a failing, cliché-spouting hack? Sad!” the river spit.
Good to know he’s staying current.
“Um, yeah, well, how will you be marking the 10th anniversary?” I asked.
“I’ll be laying low, mostly. Very low. Better to be a quiet backdrop instead of the massive attention-hog I was back in 2008,” the river bubbled. “It’s a moment for me to reflect. The recovery all around me has been a remarkable achievement. People should be beyond proud of what’s been accomplished.
“And yet, it all makes me nervous.”
“How so?” I asked.
“It could happen again. Heck, it will happen again. I can feel it in my banks. Our climate is going haywire, spawning more frequent heavy rains in my watershed. We’re just a few really bad, soggy nights up north away from another severe flood here. A 100-year flood is now a 25-year flood. Just look at 2016.
“It’s true, the city did a great job in 2016 responding to keep me under control. But with less warning and a few more feet of water, it might have been very different. Construction of permanent flood control is underway, but it will take years to finish. And how will the city pay for it all? The federal government has been all talk and no dough,” the river carped.
“Cheer up, Cedar,” I said. “Our congressional delegation is on the case. And surely the Legislature will come to our aid. They won’t leave us high and dry, or is it vulnerable and soaked?”
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“I’ve seriously being thinking about flowing into politics,” the river rippled. “Before 2008, my apathy ran deep. But then I realized it wasn’t just heavy rain that turned me into a muck-making monster. It’s lousy, shortsighted land use upstream. It’s rushing runoff from farmland and acres of urban pavement. It’s disappearing topsoil and, yes, a changing climate. Each helped bust my banks, with a big assist from politicians who lack the courage to stand up to powerful interests and address these problems. They can pass billion and trillion-dollar trickle-down tax cuts but can’t protect citizens from the next deluge.”
A stump speech, from a river? Don’t stop him. He’s rolling.
“We need deep resolve and fewer shallow promises. Our water, land, health and communities are at stake. Who can debate the merits of water quality better than me? I am water. Hear me roar,” the river gushed, kicking up a few whitecaps.
“You have my endorsement,” I told the river, which gradually calmed.
“Sorry, I get a little worked up,” the river said, looking a little drained. “It’s good to talk with you again after all this time.”
“Same here. But I do have one question,” I said. “That column I wrote 10 years ago, did it make you angry? Like flood-the-town angry?”
“What? That’s nuts. Who would get so agitated over a newspaper column?” the river roiled.
Remind me to float him some of my mail this week.
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