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Crossposted from UNBOSSED

Last summer, I attended a meeting of Forest Serice personel, anglers, local elected officials and residents concerned about the destructive impacts of Off-Road Vehicles (ORVs).  A local woman, particularly upset with ORVs in her neck of the woods, explained, accurately, that ORVs rip off vegetation that holds the soil in place, they hardend the soil thereby increasing the speed at which water ran out of the forest further increasing erosion.  The streams near ORV areas were being filled with sediment and local fish populations were being impacted.  Some local homes were even in danger of flooding from the ORV use!  She had much to add.  It was clear that she had spent alot of time out on the land observing the very destructive erosive impacts of ORVs.

It was then that a member of the county commission make a shocking statement: "But...ORVs don't cause erosion.  Water does!"

So, I found myself equally shocked the other day when I heard a man on the radio say that the destruction of the native midwestern ecosystem had nothing to do with the flooding.  

'It's the water!!'

The U.S. Geological Survey is now telling us that many of the floods we are seeing in the Midwest are so-called 500-year events (terrypinder at Dkos currently has a diary up that offers a good explanation of how a 500-year flood is defined). That is what they said about the floods back in 1993.  Why are we getting two "500-year floods" in just 15 years?

I'm sure I'm going to be called an insensitive jerk for what I am about to write but the fact is that the very poor land use decisions made by people in the Midwest (not to mention the Federal government) has resulted in this flooding.  If we don't recognize the fact of what has caused this flooding, we are doomed to repeat it.

Over the past 100 years Iowans, for example, have altered their landscape beyond recognition.  Its gotten much worse the past ten years.  

  1. Agricultural fields and pavement have replaced the immense tall-grass praries that once dominated Iowa.  These praries supported grasses that were six feet high and root systems that were six feet deep.  The prairie was essentially a giant sponge.
  1. Creeks, streams and rivers have been straightened.  This has further degraded the absorbant quality of the native system.  It has also made the water move faster and focuses it downstream dramatically re-enforcing its destructive flooding abilities.
  1. Compaction.  Those once-spongy praries have been so worked over for agricultural purposes that they have lost their softness.  Tractors have compacted and hardened the soil so that the water cannot seep in.  The water instead builds in depth and power.
  1. Over the past few years, even more prarie has been put into corn production and farmers are now farming right up to the edge of creeks and streams.  Without a riparian structure to slow it down, the water moves from the field to the creek at a rapid pace swelling the creeks.  Sorry I can't source this at the moment but I heard a man from the National Wildlife Federation on the radio the other day say that over 100,000 acres of Iowa has been taken out of the Conservation Reserve Program.  If true, that is an astounding amount of land that has gone from absorbant prarie to compacted ag field in an incredibly short time.
  1. Wetlands, designed by nature to hold, clean and slow-release floodwaters have been increasingly filled in for developments.
  1. Corn.  The production of corn is exploding all over the country.  Corn does not have the deep roots that many other products have.
  1. Pavement.  Take a glass of water out to your driveway or street.  Pour the water on that impermeable surface.  You get the picture.

Sure its been raining buckets.  But the amount of rain is not really the point.  The functionality of the system is what matters and a functional system protects human life and property.  Natural systems have long ago developed ways to take the power out of destructive weather events.  We ignore those methods to our peril.

In principle, what you want to do is slow the water as it moves across the landscape.  You want to spread it out, let it soak in.  That's what nature does.  If the land was allowed to work as it should, Iowans might have seen a couple of inches of flooding spread over vast areas.  A few inches is something you can keep out of your house.  A few feet isnt.

And it is not just the mid-west. It is also the Rocky Mountain West, where I live.  Here people are building like crazy in places of very, very high fire danger and they are building on slopes that see frequent landslides.  A big part of the problem with Katrina was the destruction of the Mississippi delta systems and the bayous that protected the city from storm surge.  A friend of mine who was until recently a relief worker in India tells me that when the tsunami hit, the areas with the greatest and worst impact were those where the mangrove swamps had been cut down.  Communities where the mangroves had been left in place saw little to no loss of life.

Again, this isn't a question of extremes.  It is not black and white.  We don't have to stop midwestern agriculture.  Nor do we need to move all people out of the system.  What we need to do is restore the system so that it actually works.  There are methods of agriculture that are highly productive, use no fertilizers and don't compact the soil. There are ways of paving roads and parking lots that employ materials that allow water to filter into the soil.  We don't have to plow right up to the bank of a stream.  We don't have to tear down the riparian buffers.  We need to take streams out of the straight concrete channels we've put them in and allow them to meander slowly.  We have to protect wetlands.  We have to tear down the levees.  We have to let the land and the water work the way nature intended.

It is not a question of either or...its simply a question of doing it right.  The systems needs to be restored, imporved and regenerated.

"A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

Aldo Leopold A Sand County Almanac, 1948

Originally posted to environmentalist on Fri Jun 20, 2008 at 01:42 PM PDT.

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