By Alma Gaul
In June 2008, the rivers of eastern Iowa rose above their banks to create floods of epic proportions, ruining farm fields and displacing thousands of residents and businesses.
Many people still are struggling to recover; some never will.
A new book, “A Watershed year: Anatomy of the Iowa Floods of 2008,” edited by Cornelia F. Mutel, examines various facets of this flood, keying in on what lessons were, or might be, learned.
The book’s 25 chapters are written by different people, from different viewpoints, including college professors, hydrologists and city public works directors.
An overriding point is that floods will inevitably happen in the future, perhaps with greater frequency because of our changing climate, and that we would be wise to take a somewhat different approach to mitigating them, an approach that takes into account a river’s entire watershed, not just the immediate flood plain.
Mutel, who is the historian and archivist for IIHR-Hydroscience and Engineering at the University of Iowa College of Engineering, writes philosophically in one of her section introductions, pointing out that people through the ages have recounted flood myths.
She speaks of Noah and the Ark, a story in which God renews a relationship with humanity, as well as the Gilgamesh myth of Babalonia and the Atrahasis story from Sumaria.
“Perhaps, just as in ancient times, our modern flood stories are working to lead us back to a new relationship with the earth,” Mutel writes. “Just as Noah, Gilgamesh and Atrahasis must have done, we wonder whether we are being called to renew our balance with the earth and the creation.”
Restoring our land so it will absorb and hold water is a new beginning, she says.
She doesn’t dismiss the flood-control approaches already in use.
Valuable structures must still be flood-proofed or moved out of the flood plain.
Well-planned levees and other barriers also are part of the management puzzle, although there is a growing mind-shift among people involved in flood planning away from the idea that raging rivers can be contained with levees.
Instead, there is growing understanding that rivers need to be managed with techniques that will mitigate flooding, such as creating more wetlands to hold runoff.
This will have added benefits: improving water quality by allowing water to filter, creating wildlife habitat and providing carbon sequestration.
But a shift away from the levee mentality will require major re-thinking of our relationship with the landscape and could entail large-scale policy changes that need to, as she says, “surmount institutional and policy inertia, as well as challenge the power of special interests and lobbies.”
But what is the alternative? More of the same?