Global climate change and Iowa's severe storms/flooding

It is probably still an inconvenient or touchy time to be talking about this with all of the truly disastrous flooding coming to an end in Iowa and the cleanup just beginning.  But it has to be said: we weren't truly prepared for this kind of disaster and we have to take steps to prevent it from happening in the future.

Brad Johnson, a research associate at the Center for American Progress and a blogger at their Wonk Room policy blog, brought my attention to a couple of his posts on the terrible flooding and storms in the Midwest this summer, particularly in Iowa.  And in those posts he makes a couple of fascinating points.

First, he notes Sen. Chuck Grassley's hypocrisy in calling attention to the complacency over severe weather (speaking on the Senate floor about the deadly Parkersburg tornado) yet voted to filibuster the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act.

Second, he notes an unfortunate quote from Gov. Chet Culver about our inability to "anticipate or prepare for" these types of events.  The facts are that reports since at least 2000 have been forecasting the types of weather patterns Iowa has been experiencing over the last couple of years.  See the link above for more information at Johnson's post.

It seems clear that leadership on both sides of the political spectrum in Iowa have failed us.  They are not considering the big picture when it comes to environmental concerns in the state of Iowa.  And statewide environmental groups aren't putting the pressure on local and state officials to keep them accountable either.

We need better and bolder leadership on the broad issues of global climate change and environmental issues in Iowa.  Whether or not you want to attribute the cause of these terrible weather patterns to global climate change, call them a natural aberration, or simply just call them normal, our leaders should be considering some important things when moving forward with reconstruction.  Bill Becker at Climate Progress offers more details, but here is his list which he deems lessons from an angry planet:

  1. We need to put unprecedented pressure on our national leaders to get serious about mitigation and adaptation.
  2. It's past time to rethink national flood control and water management strategy.
  3. When we repair and rebuild disaster-damaged buildings and infrastructure, we should do so with cutting-edge mitigation and adaptation in mind.

Groups like the Iowa Global Warming Campaign, the Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Iowa Environmental Council, and any other group committed to protecting and defending Iowa's environment should be tackling issues like this.  Granted, there are concerns about hog lots, Iowa's waterways, and coal power plants to be concerned about as well.  Heck, even 1000 Friends of Iowa should be concerned about future development that not only is environmentally-friendly but that protects families and businesses on or near flood plains.

The state needs leadership on these pressing issues.  We call events like these "100 year floods" and "500 year floods" for a reason.  The frequency with which they occur is not what is implied, but the the likelihood that they will.  In just a 15 year period of time, we've experienced drastic periods of extreme drought and extreme precipitation.  You can even go back to periods in the 1980s (particularly around 1984) and see the same type of patterns, but with less severity.  We are certainly experiencing more severity with more frequency.  This is a result of global climate change.  We aren't taking the threats seriously and we aren't preparing ourselves for the future--either by accommodating the tragic effects that are likely or by acting to stop these events from happening in the first place.

The big debate in Iowa that is now emerging as the flood waters head downstream and leave the state is how to pay for all of the destruction and prepare for the reconstruction.  Some want to use the state's rainy-day fund and others are looking at incurring state debt as an option.  In the end, the debate will be politically charged about fiscal issues and not the bigger picture.  Democrats and Progressives in Iowa have to think big picture or our meager political gains (and the state itself) will be washed away, no pun intended.

  • we have changed the way our watersheds operate

    When most of Iowa was covered with prairie, the land could absorb much larger quantities of water than modern-day farmland can.

    And as we continue to pave over and develop what was once farmland, without adequately dealing with the stormwater, the land can absorb even less water, which increases the chance of catastrophic flooding.

    To cite just one example, the Four Mile Creek area on the east side of Des Moines has flooded more frequently in the past 15 years because of urban sprawl in and around Ankeny.

    1000 Friends of Iowa has tried to raise awareness of this issue, and a few other groups like Growing Greener Communities and the Center on Sustainable Communities have tried to encourage better stormwater management in new developments, with limited success.

    Unfortunately, the Democratic leadership in the Iowa legislature is steadfastly unwilling to take some of the steps that are needed to protect the environment.

  • regarding Lieberman-Warner

    the environmental community was very divided over that bill. Some people feel we should wait until 2009, when presumably we will have larger Democratic majorities in Congress and (we all hope) a Democrat in the White House. We could get a much better bill out of Congress under those circumstances.

    I don't doubt that Grassley opposed the bill for the wrong reasons, but I am also not sorry it didn't pass.

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