Jun 6, 2013

Time to start working with nature, not against it | Iowa City Press Citizen | press-citizen.com

Jun. 2, 2013
Written by
Jan Glendening

Iowa is filled with river towns. And yet again we are seeing these rivers rise to heights that should be seen only once in a lifetime.

Our instincts tell us to control and defy these costly floods, and then get back to normal as quickly as possible. Local, state and federal policies support this approach. That makes sense on the surface, but this has become a vicious cycle.

After 20 years of unmanageable and costly floods, we know that nobody wins with our current land management. Floods are among the most expensive natural disasters, resulting in billions of dollars of damages in the U.S. every year. We need to stop repeating the mistakes of the past and make a conscious effort to invest in our future.

So how do we do this?

First we need to realize that record breaking floods are becoming more frequent and how we use our land is a contributing factor. Economic forces have resulted in a dramatic loss of pastures, grasslands and hay production in favor of corn and soybean production. These changes have reduced the overall water holding capacity of our soil and are contributing to flood events even during relatively light precipitation events. With conservation practices in tandem with agricultural land use changes, scientists predict the most damaging floods will become more frequent in coming decades.

It’s time for a different approach. We must be proactive and innovative. We need an approach that addresses the needs of farms, communities and the environment simultaneously. Such an approach can reduce damages while improving the health of soil and rivers. There is a payoff: a study by the National Institute of Building Sciences estimated that for every dollar we spend on flood mitigation, we save $4 in future damages.

Working with nature, not against it, will provide multiple benefits. We need flood walls and levees, but nature is an essentialpart of the solution, too. Many of the natural solutions that can alleviate the impacts of flooding will provide benefits for all people: improved water quality, hunting and fishing and soil quality for farming are just a few. Strategically targeted areas of flood compatible land along our rivers and streams allow floodwater to spread out across the landscape without causing significant damage. Wetlands hold water on the landscape — one acre of wetland can store one million gallons of water.

We also would benefit from widespread adoption of flood reduction practices on our farm land. Cover crops, which are grown to protect exposed soil in the winter, are a practice that can be used on all agricultural land and have been shown to increase soil water holding capacity. Likewise, conservation tillage can save farmers time and money while increasing soil water holding capacity. Both practices allow more water to be held on the land, thus reducing flooding downstream.

Implement solutions. We need to move beyond talking about flooding and begin to actually implement solutions on the landscape. The Nature Conservancy is working to do just that. We’ve protected and are working to restore nearly 2,300 acres of floodplain on the Cedar River north of Columbus Junction, providing much needed flood storage capacity on the lower end of the river. We are about to complete a mapping project to identify additional areas throughout the Cedar River Basin where flood storage can be achieved. In the Boone River Watershed we’ve worked with farmers to get more than 5,000 acres of cover crops out on the landscape.

Iowans continue to be hurt by major floods, yet we’ve made few substantial investments in long-term solutions. The Nature Conservancy’s hope is that the lessons we learn from this flooding will not be forgotten.

We need to invest in solutions that work with nature to benefit farms, communities and people.

Jan Glendening is the Iowa state director for The Nature Conservancy.
Time to start working with nature, not against it | Iowa City Press Citizen | press-citizen.com

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