Why is HUD Redeveloping Watersheds in Rural Iowa?
With 7+ billion people on the planet and the weather changing, the stakes in the battle between civilization and nature are going up—along with the costs and consequences of poor planning.
Last year Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana experienced two 500-year floods in the span of 5 months. Teal Myers Jr. lived in the village of Tangipahoa for 75 years but his home never flooded until March. He figured it was a fluke, reported the Times-Picayune—given that the village rests about 170 feet above sea level—but then an even bigger 500-year flood washed him out again in August. Louisiana is ground zero is an ongoing battle between nature and the built-environment—which did not begin nor end with the $108 billion Hurricane Katrina and its estimated 1,836 fatalities.
The Dutch have been winning a war against the sea for 1,000 years—nearly doubling the land area of the country since 1600. They started reclaiming land with windmills, and a necessarily integrated approach that incorporated the flow of water through urban canals, parks and residences. Today almost half of its land area is at or below sea level and the Dutch deploy some of the most sophisticated water management and flood control systems in the world.
But not every battle against Mother Nature was won. The Delta Works was only created after the North Sea flood of 1953 caused 2,551 fatalities (1,836, in the small Netherlands alone), drowned 30,000+ animals and left nearly 10% of the country's agricultural land under seawater. Now the Netherlands is protected against an event with a probability of occurring once every 10,000 years with world class system of manmade barriers, seawalls, floodgates, dykes, dams, canals, restored vegetative dunes and wetlands working to accentuate the countries natural defenses, barrier islands and high grounds.
And even though the death tolls in the North Sea flood of '53 and Hurricane Katrina of '05 are exactly the same, the responses were not. While the Dutch took a "never again" attitude and built a 10,000-year system, the system rebuilt in Louisiana is mostly built to only withstand a 500-year event.
Americans are battling the sea on three sides as well as in the great grassland sea in between. We've been plowing and draining the prairie for the last 400 years, slowly putting into production the largest arable landmass in the world and becoming the largest agricultural exporter on the planet (the Netherlands is actually #2 despite only being the size of Connecticut). When settlers first began farming the prairie, the vegetation was so thick it was untillable. Inventing new plows and machinery were necessary to plod through the incredible deep layers of natural prairie roots. It was more than grassland, it was very wet. Large areas of Indiana, Illinois and Iowa were actually “wetland prairie” and host to biodiversity second only to tropical rainforests.
In fact, the largest arable last mass in the world is threaded by its largest inland waterway network. The U.S. has more miles of navigable inland waterway (17,600) than the rest of the world combined. Unsurprisingly, the battle to settle the Midwest's grassland seas and its veins of mighty rivers wasn’t without its own environmental setbacks and failures, including plenty of terrible floods—but most infamously an anti-water disaster known as the Dust Bowl.
The stakes are just as higher or higher today. Now there are more than 7 billion people to feed and a modern, just-in-time global economy to maintain. We have more technology to subdue nature, and we've used it to great benefit. Global hunger, poverty, and malnourishment have all made incredible gains in the past 30 years—with billions elevated beyond minimum subsistence and hundreds of millions rising in middle classes around the world. Risk is globally diversified, so if there is a natural disaster or a crop failure, aid can be quickly redirected from elsewhere. A century ago there was no ship or plane of clean water, medical supplies and meals-ready-to-eat to dispatch to desperate , starving peoples in need.
But it also means we are more globally integrated, and the crop failure on the far side of the world has more of an impact than it did in the 1800’s. A hurricane in the right place at the right time can raise the price of your cup of coffee or chicken fried rice before it even makes landfall thanks to the speed of modern markets. And because the scale of the human machine is so large today, there are more of the “right places” (or wrong places) for hurricanes, floods, droughts or other environmental malady to hit and make an impact.
And they are—there has been a major crop failure every year for more than a decade running. Most years in the century so far have experienced at least one major crop failure somewhere in the world. In 2008, a perfect storm of conditions capped by exploding oil prices led to food riots in more than 30 countries and unrest around the world.
Here in the U.S., long-term data show that heavy precipitation and flooding events are increasing in frequency across the continent. And whether you believe in manmade climate change or not, the world is warming up, putting more energy and water vapor in the atmosphere. The domino effect on weather patterns and climate events is bringing the battle between the natural environment and the built-environment to a fever pitch.
Mother Nature isn’t waiting for climate change to arrive in the Midwest. 2008 also flooded out Iowa in a massive hydrological event that lasted nearly a month. Even though there were no fatalities, miraculously, the phrase "Iowa's Katrina" is often used to describe the scale of the damage. The total cost was estimated to be $64 billion, approaching the scale of Katrina’s $108 billion cost. Then from 2011–2013, Iowa suffered eight Presidential Disaster Declarations, encompassing 73 counties and more than 70% of the state.
We really haven’t moved too far from the first farmers who began the business of bending the land to their will and cultivated civilization in the process. We’re still just waiting for the rain to sow a good harvest, or watching for the flood. The quest for a better built environment continues.
Modern management efforts came in the Flood Control Act of 1937 (after the Ohio River “Super Flood”), Flood Control Act 1944 and the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act of 1954. These sweeping acts of Congress gave rights to states to impact flood control projects and began actively managing water resources with multiple intentions, including: hydropower, recreation, water supply, navigation, flood control and fish and wildlife.
These early efforts also experimented with managing water at the micro level and reduce flooding by changing the hydrology on a small watershed scale. Engineers learned that better soil infiltration and stair-stepping water down slowly through a watershed’s ponds and wetlands were natural and highly effective means of flood control.
Unfortunately, funding for the old watershed programs were allowed to atrophy. But renewed interest in using the watershed in recent years has seen a return of major projects.
The Iowa Watershed Approach (IWA), funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is a five-year, $96.9 million project focused on flood disasters in the state of Iowa. The Iowa Watershed Approach focuses on in-field and edge-of-field practices to both reduce flood potential and decrease nutrient concentration in surface water. These techniques include: wetland construction, farm ponds, storm water detention basins, terraces, sediment detention basins, floodplain restoration, channel bank stabilization, buffer strips, saturated buffers, perennial cover, oxbow restoration, bioreactors, and prairie STRIPS.
The IWA will push the envelope towards a new paradigm for flood resilience—one that decreases flood risk, improves water quality, and increases community resilience. Hundreds of small projects will aggregate to help improve Iowa’s water quality, complement the state’s flood mitigation program and reduce downstream flooding. All projects will be voluntary and landowners receive 75% cost share assistance on constructed practices.
The IWA’s adaptive model aims to accomplish six specific goals:
- reduce flood risk;
- improve water quality;
- increase resilience;
- engage stakeholders through collaboration and outreach/education;
- improve quality of life and health, especially for vulnerable populations; and
- develop a program that is scalable and replicable throughout the Midwest and the United States.
Nine distinct watersheds across Iowa will serve as project sites for the IWA:
- Clear Creek Watershed
- Dubuque/Bee Branch Watershed
- East Nishnabotna Watershed
- English River Watershed
- Middle Cedar Watershed
- North Raccoon Watershed
- Upper Iowa Watershed
- Upper Wapsipinicon Watershed
- West Nishnabotna Watershed
Each will leverage a watershed management authority, develop individual hydrologic assessments and watershed plans, and implement projects to reduce the magnitude of downstream flooding and to improve water quality during and after flood events.
The IWA also includes a community resiliency program to help communities prepare for, respond to, recover from, and adapt to floods. IWA activities will include assessing resilience in the targeted watersheds, engaging communities in discussions about their unique resilience needs, and helping communities formulate and begin to act on resilience action plans. The IWA represents a vision for Iowa’s future that voluntarily engages stakeholders throughout the watershed to achieve common goals, while moving toward a more resilient state.
It is a replicable model for other communities to improve the landscape’s natural resilience to floods and retaining vital nutrients necessary to feed the world. More in line with the integrated Dutch approach, it will also help harmonize the natural and built environment in a way that reduces the propensity for costly, deadly disasters.
Can HUD’s $96 million investment in Iowa prevent its next $60 billion dollar disaster? Maybe not. But every day Mother Nature is watching where we make the decision to invest pennies in prevention, or waste pounds cleaning up after the disaster catches us unprepared. And in many cases, just like our farming forebearers before us, we're just hoping she doesn't hit us in the wrong place at the wrong time.
What's a "Bluefield"?
A bluefield possesses water resources itself or has access to a navigable body of water such as a river, sea, or ocean—either directly or via canal or port. Some Bluefields can support viable commercial uses, and many of these commercial bluefields have definitive access or riparian rights. Many other Bluefields merely provide simple enjoyment for the property owners and tenants. Use the bluefield tag on BrownfieldListings.com to post a watershed development RFP, RFQ or RFI, or to simply signal water resources or concerns on your property or in your project.