A watershed year: Mutel’s book examines causes, lessons of the 2008 floods
By Stephen Schmidt
IOWA CITY- Rural Solon resident Connie Mutel is a historian and archivist at IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering, a research institute within the University of Iowa’s College of Engineering. She is also an author, and was responsible for assembling and editing the book, “A Watershed Year: Anatomy of the Iowa Floods of 2008.”
Mutel’s goal was to analyze the science of the flooding that happened specifically in Johnson and Linn Counties in June of 2008 – including the massive flooding that ripped through Cedar Rapids – to help readers better understand flooding and how to cope with its aftereffects.
Mutel is well-published: the ecologist/author wrote about Iowa’s geological development in “The Emerald Horizon,” and has written and co-authored several books on regional ecologies, from “Fragile Giants: A Natural History of Loess Hills,” to “Tallgrass Restoration Handbook: For Prairies, Savannas, and Woodlands” Mutel grew up in Madison, Wis., received degrees in biology and music in Ohio and earned a masters degree in plant ecology while in Colorado. She has resided in rural Solon since 1977 and calls Iowa home.
Though trained in the sciences, Mutel has a penchant for taking scientific information and making it less technical and more accessible to the average person. She is well versed in the ecology of our local watersheds, but Mutel admits she began this project rather unschooled about major floods. She solicited chapters from hydrologists, hydrometeorologists, public works directors and other authorities, siphoning out personal anecdotes to get to the basic facts and science of floods.
“I wanted to avoid chapters on human interest, like the dog that gets stuck on the roof or the guinea pig that floats down the river,” she said. “I thought that would be a story someone else could tell better.”
Instead, said Mutel, “I wanted to create a tool that could help the lay public understand what was going on with floods, and to help them understand terms such as ‘100-year flood’ and ‘flood frequency.’ But also, I had hope that the book would be a tool for land managers and administrators.”
Mutel’s book, a collection of essays written by local and national experts, interprets the complex discourse between land, water and people, and provides a basis for understanding why the 2008 floods occurred in the first place. The book also serves to dispel certain misconceptions.
“The floods were not caused by people,” Mutel stated. “2008 was really a perfect storm of conditions. We had a wet winter and a late winter, which meant that the soil was saturated and the rivers were full. Then we went into early summer, and had these huge storms. Very high rainfalls fell in just the right places so that the flows coalesced to cause this gigantic swell that passed through Cedar Rapids. One (rain storm) would fall upstream and flow downstream just in time to meet another rainfall downstream.”
Given those extreme precipitation events, Mutel continued, some believe there is no way the floods of 2008 could have been prevented.
However, she believes their size- and the extent of damage- might have been decreased. And there are lessons we can take moving forward.
“Wayne Petersen, who writes about urban hydrology, says we all can work to reduce the runoff on our land,” she said. Pre-settlement Iowa had a landscape that was extremely flood resistant, as the prairie soaked up large quantities of water, and held it, releasing water very slowly. While a flood resistant terrain didn’t necessarily eliminate flooding, it produced floods that were much different in character, probably smaller and less frequent. Over time, development has changed the topography.
“Anything we can do to get water into the soil- rather than running off the surface of the land- will lower the probability of such large floods in a small way, proportionally. It will likely also decrease the size of floods,” Mutel explained.
In urban and suburban areas, such measures include installing rain gardens, permeable pavement and bioswales -all engineered structures that help soil hold water for a time instead of allowing it to flow directly into the river.
“The water flows slowly from the soil, and it’s also purified as well,” she said. “The soil cleanses it, so the water is less polluted”
In rural areas, she said, there is a need for more perennial ground cover.
“Two-thirds of our state has two plants species on it: corn and soybeans – which is incredible. Iowa is one of the most highly manipulated landscapes on the surface of the Earth, because our farming is so intensive and we demand so much of our soils,” she said.
And those annual crops do little to prevent flooding. In bean and corn farming, soil is compacted and decreases storage capacity when the soil is tiled.
“All of the water that falls onto two-thirds of Iowa’s land shoots very rapidly into the streams. The floods then go up very quickly, not the slow kind of rises and falls like before,” added Mutel.
One remedy she points to might be to re-vegetate land upstream from communities so it will become a prairie landscape.
“But even if you don’t do that, anything that covers the soil year round – it can be a hay field or wetland – will slow down the flow of water to the streams,” she noted.
Based on her research, there are also things that can be done on a larger scale to decrease the potential for flood damage.
“One of the big things is not building in flood plains. A flood plain is a functional part of the river; it’s there because the river at one point raised high enough to scour out that flat plain,” said Mutel. “Although it’s a part of the river that’s not always used, if you build in a flood plain, at some point, the river is going to get you”
It means community planners and engineers must plan carefully- and proactiviely- for future development.
Though a few state legislators have pushed for statewide flood planning, their plans got almost universally voted down this year. The voices of their constituents could help, Mutel believes.
“People can simply put pressure on the legislature and say, ‘Hey, we want planning, we want policies that will prevent the damage of future floods'” she said. “That’s a huge thing that people could do. A huge thing”
“A Watershed Year: Anatomy of the Iowa Floods of 2008,” edited by Cornelia F. Mutel, is published by Bur Oak Books and is available through the University of Iowa Press. It can be ordered from the website at http://uipress.uiowa.edu/books/2010-spring/mutel-water.htm or purchased at local bookstores.
Mutel hopes that the more people know, the more they will be willing to act.
“We know what to do to keep ourselves safe, but we don’t always do it. We continue to take risks. And when you’re talking about something like a major flood- a huge possible risk to numerous people- does it make sense to keep gambling like this?”