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Wetlands as Flood Control?

posted on February 5, 2009 at 3:40 PM

Each time a part of thestate suffers from excessive flooding, one of the first questions asked is: Howdo we prevent this from happening again? 

Some say the answer liesnot in repairing levees or building more dams to hold back the water.  Conservationists insist the mostenvironmentally friendly and cost-effective answer is to restore some of Iowa's historiclandscape -- like wetlands.  The marsheshelp slowly drain whatever rains and snows Mother Nature sends, curbing theimpact downstream.

Duringthe floods of last summer -- this land held 6 to 15 feet of water.

Tom Cox, Refuge Manager,Port Louisa National Wildlife Refuge: "We let the river come in and dowhat it needs to do."

The river, now"welcomed", was once held back by a manmade levee to protect, amongother things, farmland.

Tom Cox: "The folks in this levee districthad been fighting this since the early 1900's. I believe this levy broke on anaverage of once every 5 years and in, in after the '93 flood which at that timewas the flood of record these folks decided they had enough."

Tom Cox says, followingthe 1993 floods, the levee district's landowners voted to dissolve Levee District8, and enrolled nearly 2700 acres of ground into the Emergency Wetlands ReserveProgram. The land became part of southeast Iowa's Port Louisa National Wildlife Refuge.

Some point to such landmasses as this refuge -- and other stretches of wetland areas in the state --as a means of flood control. The land holdsback, or at least delays, some of the water from flowing into rivers,streams and communities downstream.

That may be, but the2008 deluge, on top of a heavy winter snow melt, didn't spare those communitiesnear Port Louisa -- places like Oakvilleor Wapello.

And the talk of wetlandsversus levees worries at least one southeast Iowa farmer.

Slug Warren Kemper,Wapello farmer: "They're trying to inter-mingle wetlands buyout withfixing the levee. We have to have a levee there to keep highway 99 there."

Meeting in Wapello:"There are several alternatives looked at for this levee."

In December, a meeting washeld in Wapello to decide to what extent Levee District 11 should be repaired,if at all. One option discussed, wouldbe to repair just part of the levee. A broken section of a so-calledcross-levee -- this mound of dirt now under snow --- would be left open to theriver.

Jerry Skalak, US Army Corps– Rock Island District: "We need to take a hard look at some of theseother, other options particularly in light of having seen many of these leveesfail or be breeched over topped during the '93 flood of course is, is also makingpeople step back a little bit and take a new look at things."

Cedar Rapids, also struggles with the best solution for the long term. A consulting firm hiredto help Cedar Rapids develop a flood protection and riverfront revitalization plan,looked at some 25 different options: from flood walls, to an upstream reservoirto wetlands.

Jason Hellendrung,Sasaki Associates: "We started a preliminary look at that and was itviable to construct a wetland to handle the impact of, of this flood and it,and it isn't. The total volume of waterin acre feet was 520,000 acres. So assume 520,000 acres a foot deep."

It is a lot ofland, but not nearly the amount of wetlands the state has lost over thelast 200 years. In the 1780s, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife inventory, Iowa had 4 million acresof wetlands. Since then, the state has lost nearly 90 percent of its wetlands.

Much of the wetland losswas due to land being drained to provide tillable soil for production ofagricultural crops.

Over the years, urbanexpansion has also blanketed the landscape. More concrete poured, leaves lessland mass for stormwater to be absorbed.

With such changes in thelandscape, in addition to a changing climate, come warnings that we can't keepconducting business as usual without consequences.

Tom Cox, Port LouisaNational Wildlife Refuge: " We have to look at the uplands and howwe treat our watersheds as well. Whether its urban sprawl any type ofdevelopment. You can't compress waterand it has to go somewhere and the more we try to get rid of it upstream, themore we have to deal with it downstream."




Tags: conservation Energy/Environment floods Iowa water weather wetlands


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