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Rural Iowa Flood Issues

posted on June 2, 2009 at 2:03 PM

The issues of land cover changes are many-fold. Much of Iowa's historic timberlands, prairies and wetlands were cleared as urban areas have grown larger and agriculture expanded crop production ... but the land mass remains the same.

To prevent and protect the developed land from flooding, there has been construction of 3,300 dams and some 300 levees throughout the state. Some worked, but in 2008, many didn't.

With all the land modifications in the state, something was bound to "give" sometime. With that in mind, should Iowa rebuild the same way it has after previous floods? Or should both urban and rural interests take a hard look at options?

Pat Ryan, raises cattle and row crops near the Upper Iowa River north of Waukon. But he will farm a little less land this year. He says the 2008 floods took away his tree-lined river bank and some of his adjacent crop land. What was left ... were a rock bar beach ... and a whole lot of sand covering his fields.

Pat Ryan, Allamakee County: "35 or 40 acres was covered with sand and that run from six inches to 3-foot deep. And it was my decision to just make a windrow of sand right down through the field rather than try and remove it. It would've cost about $30,000 dollars more to haul it off. It cost us $17,000 plus to windrow it."

Ryan says he received financial assistance from the USDA, which covered three-quarters of the cost to move the sand. But someday, he says, he may elect conservation assistance instead.

Pat Ryan, Allamakee County: "That’s, that's a tough one you know. Kind of go with the flow and uh, as the monies work out and stuff why, maybe I can get it seeded down, get it to grass."

Ryan isn't ready to give in to Mother Nature ... but hundreds of other farmers are.

Following the 2008 floods, 750 Iowa landowners were willing to stop farming fields with chronic flooding. They applied to enroll the land in the USDA's Emergency Watershed Program. But the USDA says it has funds to purchase just a fraction of that land.

A similar program was initiated following the 1993 flood, the previous flood of record. As seen in this 1993 home video, the program came at a good time for a Marengo couple who live and farm on land near the Iowa River. The low-lying land had been in the family since the 1940's, and subject to decades of chronic flooding.

Larry and Nancy Beyer, Marengo: “It was a matter of economics for us. I mean, we, our crop inputs have increased over the years. It’s cost more to put the crop in and consequently if we lost a crop it was taking more years to recapture the value that we lost. So to me it was kind of a no-brainer and I was kind of just getting tired of fighting Mother Nature."

The Beyers and more than 60 neighbors along the Iowa River between Tama and Marengo enrolled more than 12,000 acres into the federal government’s Emergency Wetland Reserve program to create the Iowa River Corridor.

Some land was planted into prairie. Other acres were converted to wetlands, replacing just a small amount of the 3.8 million acres of wetlands Iowa once had. Over the last 200 years, many wetlands were drained to provide tillable soil for raising agricultural crops. To drain the land, underground tile was installed to move water from the land to nearby waterways.

Some say tiling may have been a contributing factor to the 2008 floods.

Keith Schilling, Research Geologist, Iowa DNR Geological & Water survey: "The tiles are spaced 40 meters apart. So the groundwater travel time of 40 meters to a tile is a lot faster than it would be for that groundwater seepage to flow a quarter mile to a stream. So that density of tile spacing definitely will increase the uh uh discharge to streams just because the travel time is so less."


Some tile lines that once drained to the river were cut to divert rainwater to help create new wetlands in the Iowa River Corridor.

Rick Trine, District Supervisor, Iowa Department of Natural Resources: “Where we’re standing right now, we are approximately about 2 miles from the river and the water was two foot deep, a little over two foot deep here. What this corridor does for flood mitigation is that it allows the water to spread out over land that has been taken out of production and that can’t be hurt by floods any longer. It spreads the water out, holds the water a little longer on this, on the landscape so it doesn’t get down into the Coralville Reservoir or down into the lower stretches of the Iowa River faster. It slows the flooding down as it goes downstream.”

In addition to holding back water, the wetlands are described as “nature’s kidneys.” Water and many contaminants filter through the wetlands before seeping into groundwater or streams. The area is also a haven for migratory waterfowl and other wildlife.

While converting productive farmland to wetlands reduces property tax revenues, wetland advocates say there are taxpayer benefits.

Rick Trine, District Supervisor, DNR: “Taking that farm ground out of production reduces the taxpayers’ liability to pay disaster payments on an annual basis on some of that farm ground. In this part of the stretch, the Iowa River in the last 30 years has flooded 28 of those 30 years. And sometimes it floods more than once during the year.”

Conversion of chronically flooded cropland to wetlands was also done following the '93 floods in southeast Iowa -- and became part of the Port Louisa National Wildlife Refuge near Wapello.

Tom Cox- Refuge Manager, Port Louisa National Wildlife Refuge, Louisa County: "We let the river come in and do what it needs to do. The entire refuge was under water. Its uh, uh, just over 10,000 acres and ranged in depth anywhere from 6 to 15 feet of water over that 10,000 acres."

While water had room to spread out here, towns to the south of both Port Louisa, including Oakville, and those down river of the Iowa River Corridor still flooded.

There may have been no stopping the extreme storms of 2008, but some say the wetlands might've done a better job if placed at the top of a watershed instead of the middle or bottom.

Keith Schilling, Research Geologist, Iowa DNR Geological & Water Survey: "In terms of wetland for, for flood protection you might be better off up in the landscape where you, you're taking the runoff where it's generated as opposed to trying to use a wetland at the watershed outlet, where if you try and run storm flow through a wetland you're just going to silt it in and, and you know, the wetland’s going to be gone."

Schilling acknowledges more study may be needed to determine the best placement of wetlands. One thing that can help, he says, is the use of optical remote sensing technology that produces high resolution images of the state's topography. The images could provide information to help determine where conservation efforts, like wetlands, should be placed.

But mitigating floodwater and other runoff isn't just about wetlands.

Paul Goldsmith, District Conservationist, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Union county: 02:09:45:17 "In this part of the state it doesn’t, the landscape doesn't lend itself as well to the development and creation of small wetlands. Much more common in this area with our sloping landscape is the construction of terraces to control runoff, control erosion, reduces flooding."

In southwest Iowa, Paul Goldsmith says the 2008 floods ripped gullies and over-topped farm terraces in many fields.

If there is an upside, he says the floods raised awareness of the need for conservation.

Paul Goldsmith, District Conservationist, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Creston: “yeah, the floods have been good for business if you want to look at it from that perspective. Numbers-wise we probably had 150 to 200 that requested, contacted us about potential damages on their farms."

Nine months after the flood, similar farmland washouts can also still be seen in northeast Iowa. But some farmers utilizing several conservation land measures say they saw little flood damage on their own land.

Jeff Pape, Dyersville: "Basically, one small area that I did see some ground move where I didn't have a grass waterway, never had before. With the no till we get a significant increase in water absorption into the ground. Most of my, all of my farming practices are 100 per cent no till. We've got a grade stabilization structure that helps stop any runoff that does come off between other land and my land uh from continuing its way on down the creek which goes into town and into Dyersville from there."

Conservation decisions in farm country are voluntary and often based on economics. But if more farmers participated, says one Environmental Specialist with the Iowa Department of Agriculture, conservation could better mitigate floods.

Michael Freiburger, Environmental Specialist, Iowa Department of Agriculture:
"The state average on no till is, there's about 30 percent ... and that started in '78. I’m looking at as if the farm is truly, in true conservation. The water somewhat controlled coming off the farm basically and slowing it down quite a bit and keeping it up on the landscape. If we had 75-80 percent of that, the landscape probably be controlled, I think we would probably take a major peak off the top of the water coming into the towns and off the rivers and the river basins."

Tags: floods Iowa rural

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