[Marxism] "Agriculture must respect the limits of nature"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jun 19 07:19:07 MDT 2008

Iowa Flooding Could Be An Act of Man, Experts Say

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 19, 2008; A01

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?"

The river would eventually rise six feet higher than any flood on 
record. Farther downstream, in Cedar Rapids, the river would break the 
record by more than 11 feet.

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.

"We've done numerous things to the landscape that took away these 
water-absorbing functions," he said. "Agriculture must respect the 
limits of nature."

Officials are still trying to understand all the factors that 
contributed to Iowa's flooding, and not everyone has the same suspicions 
as Enshayan. For them, the cause was obvious: It rained buckets and 
buckets for days on end. They say the changes in land use were lesser 
factors in what was really just a case of meteorological bad luck.

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."

Corn alone will cover more than a third of the state's land surface this 
year. The ethanol boom that began two years ago encouraged still more 

Between 2007 and 2008, farmers took 106,000 acres of Iowa land out of 
the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to keep farmland 
uncultivated, according to Lyle Asell, a special assistant for 
agriculture and environment with the state's Department of Natural 
Resources (DNR). That land, if left untouched, probably would have been 
covered with perennial grasses with deep roots that help absorb water.

The basic hydrology of Iowa has been changed since the coming of the 
plow. By the early 20th century, farmers had installed drainage pipes 
under the surface to lower the water table and keep water from pooling 
in what otherwise could be valuable farmland. More of this drainage 
"tiling" has been added in recent years. The direct effect is that water 
moves quickly from the farmland to the streams and rivers.

"We've lost 90 percent of our wetlands," said Mary Skopec, who monitors 
water quality for the Iowa DNR.

Crop rotation may also play a subtle role in the flooding. Farmers who 
may have once grown a number of crops are now likely to stick to just 
corn and soybeans -- annual plants that don't put down deep roots.

Another potential factor: sediment. "We're actually seeing rivers 
filling up with sediment, so the capacity of the rivers has changed," 
Asell said. He said that in the 1980s and 1990s, Iowa led the nation in 
flood damage year after year.

This landscape wasn't ready for the kind of deluge that hit Iowa in May 
and early June. Central and eastern portions of the state received 15 
inches of rain. That came on top of previous rains that had left the 
soil saturated. Worse, the rain came at the tail end of an unusually 
cool spring. Farmers had delayed planting their crops. The deluge struck 
a nearly naked landscape of small plants and black dirt.

"With that volume of rain, you're going to have flooding. There's just 
no way around it," said Donna Dubberke, a meteorologist with the 
National Weather Service in the Quad Cities. "This is not just because 
someone put in a parking lot."

The rising Mississippi River is expected to peak this week, threatening 
towns and farmland north of St. Louis as floodwaters continue to move 
down the river. So far, flooding and severe weather have killed at least 
24 people in three states and injured 106, forced the evacuations of 
about 40,000, and driven corn prices to record highs.

Two levees burst just north of Quincy, Ill., yesterday morning, forcing 
the evacuation of the small town of Meyer. Yesterday afternoon, Illinois 
Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) visited the town after viewing the nearby Sny 
Island Levee, about 12 miles downstream from Quincy and, at 54 miles 
long, the second-biggest levee on the Mississippi.

In Iowa, the National Weather Service has reported record flooding at 12 
locations on four rivers, including the Cedar, the Iowa, the 
Wapsipinicon and the Mississippi. The U.S. Geological Survey has 
preliminary data showing 500-year floods on the Cedar, the Shell Rock, 
the Upper Iowa and the Nodaway.

The Great Flood of 2008 has, for many inhabitants of sandbagged Iowa, 
come awfully soon after the Great Flood of 1993. Or, as Elwynn Taylor, a 
meteorologist at Iowa State University, put it: "Why should we have two 
500-year floods within 15 years?"

Taylor attributes the flooding in recent years to cyclical climate 
change: The entire Midwest, he says, has been in a wet cycle for the 
past 30 years.

There has also been speculation that global warming could be a factor.

"Something in the system has changed," said Pete Kollasch, a 
remote-sensing analyst with the Iowa DNR. "The only thing I can point my 
finger at is global warming, but there's no proof of that."

Jeri Neal, a program leader for ecological systems and research at Iowa 
State's Leopold Center, said all these things have a cumulative effect 
on the landscape: "It doesn't have the resilience built into it that you 
need to withstand disturbances in the system."

The idea of a 500-year flood can be confusing. Hydrologists use the term 
to indicate a flooding event that they believe has a 0.2 percent chance 
-- 1 in 500 -- of happening in any given year in a specific location. A 
100-year flood has a 1 in 100 chance of happening, and so on. Such 
estimates are based on many years of data collection, in some cases 
going back a century or more.

But the database can be spotty. Robert Holmes, national flood 
coordinator with the U.S. Geological Survey, said a lack of funding 
since 1999 has forced his agency to discontinue hundreds of stream 
gauges across the country. "It's not sexy to fund stream flow gauges," 
he said.

What's certain is that a lot of water had nowhere to go when the sky 
opened over Iowa this spring. Some rivers did things they'd never done 
before. The flood stage at Cedar Rapids, for example, is 12 feet. The 
previous record flood happened in 1929, when the Cedar hit 20 feet. This 
year the Cedar hit 20 feet and kept rising. Experts predicted it would 
crest at 22 feet, and then upped the estimate to 24 feet. The river had 
other ideas. At mid-morning last Friday, it finally crested at 31.3 feet.

The entire downtown was flooded and a railroad bridge collapsed, dumping 
rail cars filled with rock into the river.

"Cities routinely build in the flood plain," Enshayan said. "That's not 
an act of God; that's an act of City Council."

Staff writer Kari Lydersen contributed to this report from Quincy, Ill.

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