Friday, June 20, 2008

An Act of Agriculture

Here's another event that demonstrates there are no easy solutions to environmental problems. The American demand for corn for ethanol has driven up the price of corn, which would have been good news for me if I had stayed on the farm. However, the rising price food is bad news for everyone living close to the edge. Those same potential ethanol profits have also encouraged landscape changes that make my home state, Iowa, less resilient in rough weather conditions. The Washington Post ran an article yesterday on unintended consequences: Iowa Flooding Could Be An Act of Man, Experts Say by Joel Achenbach, Thursday, June 19, 2008.

As the Cedar River rose higher and higher, and as he stacked sandbags along the levee protecting downtown Cedar Falls, Kamyar Enshayan, a college professor and City Council member, kept asking himself the same question: "What is going on?"

....Enshayan, director of an environmental center at the University of Northern Iowa, suspects that this natural disaster wasn't really all that natural. He points out that the heavy rains fell on a landscape radically reengineered by humans. Plowed fields have replaced tallgrass prairies. Fields have been meticulously drained with underground pipes. Streams and creeks have been straightened. Most of the wetlands are gone. Flood plains have been filled and developed.

....But some Iowans who study the environment suspect that changes in the land, both recently and over the past century or so, have made Iowa's terrain not only highly profitable but also highly vulnerable to flooding. They know it's a hard case to prove, but they hope to get Iowans thinking about how to reduce the chances of a repeat calamity....

"I sense that the flooding is not the result of a 500-year event," said Jerry DeWitt, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. "We're farming closer to creeks, farming closer to rivers. Without adequate buffer strips, the water moves rapidly from the field directly to the surface water."

Jerry DeWitt was a young professor at ISU, and led entomology field trips when I went to 4H Conservation Camp in 1971. I was so thrilled that an actual entomologist would talk to me! It was probably a career-defining moment for me. I don't know if that's a good or a bad thing anymore.


Reya Mellicker said...

We humans always blame ourselves when there's a natural disaster. i think that tendency is a combination of self loathing and grandiosity.

Rivers flood. All of them. If we live nearby, our homes will be flooded, too. but for heaven's sake, rivers have been flooding since long before humans lived on this planet.

And of course humans settle next to rivers, because rivers bring life to the landscape.

Don't you think?

Anonymous said...

On the other hand, building levees just forces more water downstream into places that don't have levees or over the existing levees.

Chris Timson said...

Most of the flooding problems we hit in the UK are due to building in flood plains. Understandable in a small island like ours, but still stupid when you look at the consequences.

Hallo from England, Dr Bootsie. Good to see that life is treating you reasonably. Big news here is that Anne starts at university this September to read music.


Chris & Anne