Caring for the Cedar River
by Kamyar Enshayan - Cedar Falls City Council
This week, The American Rivers, a national river protection organization, chose the Cedar River among the top ten endangered rivers in America. The underlying causes are familiar: radically altered landscape, loss of wetlands, impairment of floodplains, federal policies encouraging farming practices that have degraded soil functions, too much fertilizer and pesticides, straightened out creek and streams, loss of fish and wildlife habitat, and overall loss of the capacity of the land to absorb, retain, process and release water.
The Cedar, a tributary of the Mississippi, provides drinking water to more than 120,000 residents and roughly 530,000 people living and working in the Cedar River watershed. As Kentucky farmer and writer Wendell Berry puts it, a Watershed’s Golden Rule would read: “Do onto those downstream as you would have those upstream do onto you.” We all live upstream and downstream, and we have a responsibility to the entire watershed. The health of this watershed is intertwined with the well-being of communities within it.
A flood gets news coverage--scenes of hundreds of people sand bagging, heroic rescues on boats. But the multitude of actions that on a daily basis and over decades have impoverished our watershed get little news coverage: a group of people at a city council meeting deciding to fill in the Cedar's floodplain for a development, or lawn fertilizer and weed killers washing into local creeks, or soil washing away from a construction site. Sudden trouble is publicized, gradual decline is not.
It is important to recognize that the Cedar isn’t the most polluted or the ‘worst river’ but it is at a crossroads. If we don’t actively start to improve the watershed the river will suffer. We need better watershed planning, more cooperative work with all cities, counties and agencies, and improvements in the watershed that can provide flood reduction and water quality benefits.
No one will do this for us; we have to do it ourselves. It is a practical challenge with long-term rewards. It is honorable work, it is patriotic. It is American to protect and restore a piece of our community--the river that we have grown up with here. Do we want to continue drinking fertilizer and atrazine? Do we want to continue seeing large manure spills and “by-pass” releases of raw sewage from cities into Iowa's, America's streams? Do we want to see more houses built in areas that frequently flood? Do we want to see more wetlands drained? Continuing to see severe erosion of our precious soils? Do we want to see degradation of more wildlife and fish habitat? Ignoring all this dishonors America. What happened to our allegiance to this country?
As Senator Rob Hogg of Cedar Rapids puts it, to do the difficult work of watershed rehabilitation and restoration, we need a sandbagging mentality. That is, in the same way that thousands came to downtown Cedar Falls to sand bag at the drop of a hat, we now need thousands who are motivated to protect the integrity of the Cedar River and its watershed, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city, farm by farm, from city hall to state policies that guide better watershed practices.
Inspired by the gravity of the 2008 floods and the eagerness to organize to improve the integrity of the Cedar River Watershed, seventy some people gathered in February to discuss what steps could be taken to restore the ecological functions of the Cedar River and the multitude of benefits the River provides.
Among those gathered were elected officials, non-profits, educational institutions, various agencies, and many concerned citizens who are organizing to rehabilitate and restore this chunk of America. The stated goal of the Cedar River Watershed Coalition is: to facilitate cooperation within the watershed, and to promote planning and management, local, state and federal policies and land practices to reduce future flood damage and improve water quality. Consider taking part in it as individuals, as a farm, as an organization, as a community.
It is up to us.
I am delighted to report that Cedar Falls has enacted one of the most visionary floodplain ordinances in the state (perhaps in the country) which gives more room to the river and prevents further development in the Cedar's natural habitat--the floodplain. Much more needs to be done; for one, we need to significantly reduce the use of lawn weed killers and fertilizers in our backyards, schools and parks. (Again, the City has been a leader here by major reduction in use of lawn chemicals, saving $$, and maintaining a healthy public spaces for all of us.) We need to rethink what water-polluting materials are stored in the floodplain of the Cedar and work to relocate them. We need to work with upstream communities and land owners.
It is up to us. No one will do these for us.
Cedar Falls City Council member