Lessons Iowans Learned from Floods of 2008

Workshop at Ames looks at ways to work together to curb future flood impacts.

No one wants to see a repeat of last summer's devastating floods. But Iowans can take hope in the fact that there are resources and tools to help deal with future occurrences and renewed conversations about land uses and practices that could transform the countryside.

Those were some of the lessons from the workshop, "Learning from the Floods of 2008: Practical Strategies for Resilience," organized by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and the Center for Energy and Environmental Education. The Ames event brought together more than 120 people, among them farmers, urban planners, policymakers, educators, scientists and representatives from numerous state agencies and nongovernmental organizations.

Leopold Center Director Jerry DeWitt says the workshop accomplished its primary goal of assessing the impacts of the 2008 floods from both rural and urban perspectives, and discussing ways to make the Iowa landscape more resilient in the future.

We can do more to better manage future flooding

"With nearly 70,000 miles of rivers and streams in Iowa and changing land uses and weather patterns, we know we cannot prevent flooding in the future, but we can do a lot to manage the impacts," DeWitt says. "There are many tools we can use and actions we can take to address these risks."

Mark Ackelson, president of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, suggests that permanent conservation easements along Iowa waterways are one way to help address future flooding impacts. He cited the cases of 654 Iowa landowners who own 62,000 acres of flood-damaged farmland and have applied for a government program to set up permanent easements on their property. He says Iowa will receive $21 million, enough to provide easements for only 26 landowners or about 4,700 acres.

Ackelson also offers a proposal his organization has developed for a coordinated farm, watershed and local government flood mitigation and infrastructure protection initiative for Iowa. The plan, which recommends possible funding from existing sources, responds to needs identified by the Rebuild Iowa Advisory Committee. Other speakers at the meeting reviewed recovery efforts in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, shared water quality and stream flow data collected during and after the flooding in 2008, and assessed the effectiveness of various conservation technologies and practices.

More soil conservation practices needed

Jeri Neal, who leads the Leopold Center's Ecological Systems Initiative, was encouraged by the conversations at the meeting. "People want to know what's happening in our river systems, and how they are changing," she says. "We also need to use models for our planning that operate beyond political boundaries and institutions. This will require cooperation among government agencies and the ability to coordinate work beyond one organization or mission."

The day's key points were summarized at the end of the workshop:

* Previous assessments of climate, weather, and "100-year floodplains" will not work for planning; recent history is inadequate to assess risk; new flood maps are needed and their use should be enforced.
* Water needs to be able to infiltrate our soils better; landscapes with perennials and soils high in organic matter will do a better job of infiltration and managing water flow.
* Many conservation practices perform well if they built according to standards and maintained on a regular basis, but no single practice can do it all.
* Current agricultural and urban land use choices contribute to flooding.
* Conservation planning is everyone's business and must take into account the characteristics of an entire watershed.
* Streams react to changes in the landscape with no respect for political boundaries.
* Multi-year land lease contracts and longer-term incentive programs are important for successful conservation management.
* Targeting the point of initial water/soil contact is the most effective flood mitigation tactic; then move to programs and activities operating on a longer time line.

The public can view presentations, other resources and the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation flood mitigation proposal on the conference web site at: www.flood.leopold.iastate.edu/resources.

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