How Many More Floods Will It Take?

Sen. Joe Bolkcomby Senator Joe Bolkcom

As we commemorate the fifth anniversary of the historic 2008 floods and look back on the amazing amount of recovery work that has taken place in communities across Iowa, our recent extreme rains tell us more work lies ahead.

In the midst of the wettest spring in 141 years of record keeping, preceded by a significant drought in 2012, our extreme weather roller coaster is providing the kind of ride you just want to get off. Unfortunately, we appear destined for a rougher, scarier ride ahead. Recent record rainfall across the state is preventing corn and soybean planting, washing excessive amounts of precious top soil off our bare and vulnerable landscape and threatening businesses, homes and public infrastructure in its path.

While the challenges of current flooding are significant, every community impacted is better prepared and had less damage due to efforts undertaken after 2008. Fewer structures are in harm’s way and many of those that are, have been made more flood proof. Public infrastructure has been hardened, and we are better at predicting river flows and alerting citizens and businesses of imminent danger.

It may be hard to believe that record flooding has returned so soon, but Iowa’s leading climate scientists have been telling us that these extremes are here to stay. Due to a warmer planet, wet years will be wetter and dry years will be dryer and hotter.

Clearly the cost to all taxpayers to rebuild community after community struck by natural disasters year in and year out, will be astronomical. Will the nation be able to afford it? As extreme weather disasters mount, what will we do without: health care, education, public safety? The financial cost for the tornadoes and flooding just in the last couple of weeks will be in the billions.

There are many things we should be doing. Here are my top three ideas to consider:

Respect our rivers. Give them more space to spread out when they need to. Stop building and filling in areas where we know it is going to flood. Remove all repetitive loss structures from the floodway. Only Iowa City and Cedar Falls now restrict building in the poorly termed 500-year floodplain. Every community in Iowa should do the same. Speed up investments in flood-proofing structures that can’t be relocated. If you are worried about your home or business being flooded, buy flood insurance now.

Iowa farmers are feeding the world. That may not be possible in 25, 50 or 75 years at the rate we are sending the world’s most precious top soil downstream. Just as communities are investing in more resiliency in town, farms need to be fortified to hold and slow down more extreme precipitation. Seeing the damage to Iowa farms over the past month, there is a lot of work to do. It’s time for more active Iowa agricultural leadership on this issue. It is time to get serious about soil conservation on every farm.

Finally, climate science experts tell us we need to dramatically cut our energy use and be far more energy efficient. It is long past time for a progressive national energy policy that deploys all forms of renewable energy and energy efficiency. A new energy policy will create jobs and begin to address the dire need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigation. This should be our No. 1 domestic priority for years to come.

How many more major floods (and droughts) will it take for us to do more? My eyes tell me we should have a far greater sense of urgency in adopting policies that will confront extreme weather and cut wasteful energy consumption so we have a good answer for our kids in 20 years when they ask; what did you do to make the world safe for us?

At this point, we do not have good answer.

~State Senator Joe Bolkcom represents Iowa City in the Iowa legislature and is chair of the Ways and Means Committee.

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