‘Loading the dice’ for the ‘new normal’

I’ve heard it said that climate change is “loading the dice” toward extreme weather events. This means we must prepare for more frequent major floods — but also even larger floods.

Will Hoyer
Will Hoyer

Flooding is more and more a serious concern in Iowa. Some call it the “new normal.”

A book released earlier this year, A Watershed Year: Anatomy of the Iowa Floods of 2008, edited by Iowa historian and environmentalist Connie Mutel, helps us understand the “new normal” phenomenon. We are likely to see more frequent and possibly larger floods as rainfall patterns change as a result of climate change.

Can we, with any scientific validity, directly attribute any flood, heat wave, snowfall, hurricane or drought to climate change? Not yet. But the fact remains that the sorts of rainfall patterns Iowa has seen recently, and many of the extreme weather events seen across the world are exactly what climate models predict, as noted by a recent report from Environment Iowa.

I’ve heard it said that climate change is “loading the dice” toward making certain extreme weather events more likely to occur. What this means for Iowa is that we now have to prepare for more frequent major floods, but also be ready for even larger floods.

What can we do? There are no simple answers and clearly the solution is going to involve a combination of things. Iowa is taking the right steps by developing some excellent resources for municipal officials and local residents. But does the political will exist to make the difficult choices? Should we allow development in flood plains? (The Cedar Falls city council has decided to say no.) Should we build more levies around cities to protect them (but push flooding on to communities downstream)? Should we prohibit a net increase in runoff from any development site? Should we require or even pay farmers to reduce runoff from their fields?

In both rural and urban areas, healthy soil is the first line of defense against flooding as it can slow, store and clean prodigious amounts of rainfall and runoff. Unfortunately, as outgoing DNR Director Rich Leopold noted in an excellent and sobering editorial, our soils are not healthy. We’ve lost, and continue to lose, huge amounts of topsoil from our croplands and the soils in our urban developments aren’t really much better than concrete at holding onto water.

Healthy soil means cleaner water, less flooding, excellent crops and — quite possibly — dice that are a little less loaded. That’s a win-win-win-win for everyone.

Posted by Will Hoyer, Research Associate

Plenty of blame for Iowa floods

We can’t continue to follow the practices and policies that have created flooding problems, or create new policies that pose greater risk.

Will Hoyer
Will Hoyer

In 2008 it was Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. This year Ames is getting a turn. Oh, and throw in some serious flooding around Oskaloosa, Manchester, Colfax and elsewhere, not to mention the dam failure at Lake Delhi.

What’s going on? Why are towns, universities, farmers, the wealthy and the poor in Iowa all suffering from flood damage with frequencies far exceeding statistical expectations?

Point your finger at what you want: more development in flood plains and pavement everywhere, fewer functioning wetlands, degraded soil, more agricultural drainage tile, more row crops, and increasing frequency of heavy rains as a result of climate change. All play a role in causing havoc in Iowans’ lives and generating steep bills that have to be paid by someone, somehow.

What can be done? There are lots of things that need to be done, but a guiding principle that must be adhered to is a simple one: first, do no harm. We can’t continue to follow the practices and policies that have created the problems in the first place, or worse yet, create new policies or programs that create even greater flooding risk. Should we continue to build in flood plains? Should we continue to pave over agricultural land to build sprawling surface parking lots? Should we continue to follow agricultural cropping practices that degrade soil quality and reduce the natural ability of the soil to hold on to water? Should we “improve” field drainage so that water flows into rivers and streams even faster? The simple answer to all of these questions is no. Of course nothing, including finding policies that will address these issues while not causing harm elsewhere, is ever simple.

Stay tuned as IPP will be looking at some of these issues in encouraging policies that improve the management and quality of Iowa’s waters in ways that benefit all Iowans.

Posted by Will Hoyer, Research Associate