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Editorial: New normal

Four years of drought, then come the floods


You may think that climate change is a hoax, or that it is something in the future, or it is not related to the gasoline we burn to rubberneck the flooding at Sioux Rapids or Cherokee, or with the way we farm and produce protein. Shriveled night crawler corpses baked on the Sunday morning pavement, roughly marking high flow from the night before raging down from Spencer through the Valley of the Little Sioux and choking off Cherokee. Stranded people in Rock Valley were rescued by boat and helicopter. It is real enough.

Old-timers in Cherokee know floods. They say this is the worst ever. Records agree. Even the river stage monitors were washed away. Manual readings showed it was a foot higher than ever before. Cherokee has been retreating from the Little Sioux for decades, since the floods of 1993 at least, and put parks in the place of buildings. Flood impacts have been greatly reduced. Still, it’s bad enough.

Who thought that the Spencer shopping mall at the intersection of Highways 18 and 71 would go under? We always believed that the Algona shopping center should not have been built in the flat near the East Fork of the Upper Des Moines, but there was the dollar store on dollar land knee-deep in the river. Downtown Algona was high and dry because the Founders knew not to build in the flat. Developers go for the marginal land. That’s what we call progress. Despite the best efforts in Cherokee, we could not get there from here unless you are going through Larabee. The sheriff prudently closed off the roads leading in.

It all illustrates the confluence of contributing factors to the freakish weather raining on our best-laid plans. Iowa has been getting warmer and wetter for decades. Farmers don’t need NOAA or NASA to tell them that. Around here, we at least doubled the size of the agland drainage network by replacing clay tile with more efficient corrugated plastic, and we lay the tile at half the distance to move water from the landscape. Water has no chance to slow down. The sloughs and grasslands were drained and plowed, the creeks straightened for faster water movement down to the Gulf, and stunningly better crop yields. Corn does not like wet feet, and everything we do is built on that premise.

The head spins as the weather morphs. Four years of drought. When will it end? We got showers just in the nick of time each year. Again, bumper crops. Amazing technology. Corn is relatively cheap. So are hogs. This year it doesn’t seem to let up. Six inches at Okoboji and look what happens. Sewers are overwhelmed and bypassed down the Little Sioux heading for Linn Grove. The river bottom beans are headed for St. Louis along with the nitrate.

The weather is more extreme because of the carbon dioxide, nitrogen and methane we produce and emit, from making steel for our cars that burn ethanol made from corn that feeds on nitrogen made from methane (a process discovered in the pursuit of making bombs during World War II). To suggest that humans do not have an impact on climate is a disarming rationalization, the same sort that suggests that laying concrete next to the river or planting soybeans there makes perfect sense, or that we should not regulate drainage in any way but to make it more efficient (as the legislature and courts have suggested). Rationalizations will not keep Hwy. 59 open into Cherokee. Rationalizations put the Spencer south end to the row boat.

Things will get back to “normal.” The river recedes. Our problem is passed down the Skunk River to Ames, where the planners at the Iowa Department of Transportation consult with the Iowa State University climate experts to figure out how to keep the cars rolling on I-380 while the Cedar River rages over Cedar Rapids. This is what we call an external cost of burning fuel — rebuilding sewer and transportation systems with the weather isn’t cheap. FEMA has told Linn Grove to bugger off as the dam was undone, which could undo the bridge downstream. So it goes.

It will take a long time for Spencer to recover. How does it recover? How do you engineer your way out of the next six-inch rain, which could be any day now? When every last inch of Northwest Iowa is cultivated or laid in hard surface, the water has no place to go but into the basement or living room. The sloughs were drained 50 years ago in Palo Alto County. Now we are trying to dot the landscape with mini-wetlands to slow down and filter some pollutants from the water. Engineering an engineering problem is all. It is preposterous to think that you could set aside far more land in grass, that you could restore wetland, that you could have clean air and water, that we could all do better if we could change how we act just a little bit, that we could lighten the load and conform to the land instead of trying to conquer it. This is a new normal. Years of drought followed by floods, fueled by oil worth sparking a war for its control. You can’t insure for that. We all know it as we sandbag and wait to see what happens next.

Editorial, Art Cullen


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