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June 25, 2008

Why Are There So Many Floods?

The question on everyone’s minds here in the Upper Midwest is: What’s causing these floods? In 1993, Des Moines and many Mississippi River towns were devastated. Then in 1997, Grand Forks, North Dakota, was nearly wiped off the map as the Red River rose to record highs. Last year, huge floods struck southern Minnesota in the midst of what had been a serious drought. And now, a number of cities in Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois and Missouri have been submerged. The damage would be even more catastrophic without heroic citizen efforts at piling sandbags along the levees—a moving example of the community commons at work.

A resident of one these communities wearily told a reporter: It seems like we are having one of these 100-year floods every few years now. Are these recurring floods an act of nature? Of God? Of global warming?

Grist, the on-line environmental magazine, offers another reason. More than 160,000 acres of farmland in Iowa alone was taken out of the Conservation Reserve program between 2007 and 2008. Land once planted with grasses, which absorb the Midwest’s plentiful cloudbursts, were plowed up for cornfields, which drain the rainfall directly into local waterways. That water rapidly found its way to the Cedar River, Iowa River, Wisconsin River and eventually the Mississippi.

Photo: 12th and M Street in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, by Dan Becker, USGS, via Flickr, licensed under a Creative Commons BY license. http://www.flickr.com/photos/endofmorose/2606559414