Friday, June 20, 2008

Greenbelts and Floodplains

June 20, 2008, 8:15 a.m.

Attitudes Are Shifting

On June 16 I wrote of "Greenbelts, Greenways and Flood Prevention." While I suffer no illusion about the impact of that little blog entry, the fact is that since then there has been a growing chorus of new attitudes about Greenbelts, conservation, and smart use of floodplains.

When I was clerking for a Fifth Circuit judge in Houston and complained about the air quality I was informed, "You smell that, Boy? That's the smell of money." It's still the smell of money in Houston. But Houstonians' attitudes are changing -- even about oil.

Houston, Texas, is one of the largest, most spread out and sprawling, unplanned and unzoned cities in America. But this morning NPR had a feature on how $4.00 gas is causing even Houstonians to rethink the desirability of exchanging a little planning for their "Texas freedom." "Houston Mayor Gauges Impact of Traffic," Morning Edition/National Public Radio, June 20, 2008.

And so it is that the flooding that's caused the State to declare over 80 of Iowa's 99 counties to be disaster areas has finally captured our attention, and got us thinking that maybe some of the environmentalists' ideas about Greenbelts, Greenways, planting "filters" along rivers -- and devoting floodplains to parks, forests and wetlands (rather than regularly flooded homes and businesses) -- may have been pretty smart ideas after all.

How else can you explain this morning's Press-Citizen's op ed page with columns by Bob Elliott and Karen Kubby both singing in harmony?

Karen Kubby writes:

I've heard some conversation in the community about changing our floodplain ordinances to prevent residential rebuilding or new construction, even if built one foot above the 100-year flood plain. Some communities across the nation have taken this step and turned their floodplains into recreation areas. This allows the floodplain to maintain its function of absorbing and holding water during flood events, creates public spaces around waterways and provides recreation and transportation paths.

Tragedy was turned into an economic boon in these cases.

When Idyllwild was built in the 1990s, Susan Horowitz and I voted "no" because of this issue. We wanted to discuss the cost and benefits of revising the floodplain ordinance. The majority ruled. Idyllwild was built, and the floodplain ordinance was not reviewed.
Karen Kubby, "Affordable Housing and Floodplain Management," Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 20, 2008, p. 15A.

Bob Elliott confesses:

In addition to being a disaster, this devastating flood is a learning experience. So I hope our battle with the Iowa River is teaching us a lesson.

In recent years, I paid attention to environmental activists about the importance of such things as floodplains. But I was listening with something of a jaundiced ear.

Well, I'm not yet a born-again environmentalist, and probably not eligible to wear an official tree hugger badge. But my eyes and ears are being opened.

For one thing, I'm more aware of problems with building on a floodplain or doing anything with it other than leaving it as nature intended. . . .

After the painfully disturbing reality of the past few weeks, clearly we need to be really careful when messing with Mother Nature. . . . [W]e get the short end of the stick when we attempt to do battle with tornadoes and floodwaters.

So given the benefit of hindsight, it appears Iowa City shouldn't have allowed development of homes and churches in the northside Idyllwild and Normandy Drive areas.
Bob Elliott, "Learn Lessons From the Flood," Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 20, 2008, p. A15.

Gregory Johnson commented in an email:

I'm encouraged to see that others are thinking about widening the green areas around the Iowa River.

When I was in Chicago, we had wonderfully pleasant weather on Monday and walked in the water on the beach. The next day it was cold and dangerous to even be near the lake. Waves were crashing against the shore furiously. The beach was closed. Fortunately no property was damaged. No businesses were closed down. No residents were displaced. Why? Because Chicago has established beautiful parks, beaches, and trails along the lake shore.

I think Iowa City and other communities should do the same. Putting parks and trails in an area subject to flooding doesn't mean that parks and trails aren't as important as businesses. The point is that they are easier to clean up after flooding. Parks aren't "mission critical." It wasn't until this flood that I realized how many of this city's critical resources are in flood areas:

* The entire office complex for the Johnson County Administration Building
* The pure water processing plant
* The waste water processing plant
* The central University of Iowa Computing Center
* The Power Plant
* The Hydraulics Lab
* The entire source for steam (heating and cooling system) for the entire campus
If the above resources are knocked out, the entire city would need to be evacuated. . . .

Some sports require large amounts of open space (and open green space) such as tennis, golf, soccer, baseball, football practice, and other such things. Why not have these in the low lying areas. Instead, the football practice field was high and dry while the critical infrastructure of Iowa City and the University of Iowa was under water.
(And see his "Proactive Flood Containment and Disaster Planning - Responding to the Iowa Flood of 2008.") Nor are the advantages of Greenbelts and Greenways limited to their ability to reduce or eliminate flood damage through wiser use of floodplains.

They also contribute to a reduction in greenhouse gases and the size of our "carbon footprint." Here are excerpts from the latest science on the relationship between the flood damage we've just suffered and "global warming":

If you think the weather is getting more extreme, you're right — and global warming caused by human activity probably is the reason, according to a report released Thursday by a panel of government scientists.

The report comes as the Midwest copes with record rainfall and catastrophic flooding.

There is strong evidence the increasing frequency of extreme rain, heat, drought and tropical storms is caused by global climate change, according to the report from the U.S. Climate Change Science Program.
Larry Wheeler, "Scientists: Weather extremes consistent with global warming," USA Today, June 19, 2008. The hard copy Press-Citizen had a brief version this morning as "We May Be Cause of Weather Woes," p. 7A. A full, early version of report is U.S. Climate Change Science Program, "Weather and Climate Extremes in a Changing Climate," August 16, 2007.

When even Bob Elliott and scientific reports that make it through the Bush Administration agree there's a problem -- and, more important, a solution -- it's time for all of us to abandon levies, rebuilding in floodplains, and sandbagging and get behind Mother Nature's flood control plan.

Where to start? (1) Find out more about Greenbelts at GO IOWA!,, and (2) work to pass the conservation bond issue on the November 4, 2008, ballot.

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Anonymous said...

While I agree with the need for more floodplains and parks along the riverfront, Mr. Johnson's (the other Mr. Johnson) statement is severely uninformed.

Why are assets like the UI Power Plant, CIC water plant, UI Hydraulics Lab and CIC waste water near the river? THEY HAVE TO BE. All these buildings utilize large amounts of water that comes either directly or indirectly from the Iowa River. Building them elsewhere would range from unacceptably difficult, expensive and inefficient to downright impossible.

Two further points. One, those assets are not universally as vulnerable as Mr. Johnson claims. The UI servers in Lindquist Center saw no damage at all, in fact, sandbag protection of that building went down almost as quickly as it went up. The CIC Water Plant north of the city is protected by the highest levees in the area. Only a 1000 or 5000 year flood has the potential to breach them.

Secondly, those assets are not universally critical. The UI and CIC were able to function with the loss of steam and power. Des Moines survived for weeks after the total loss of its water facilities in 1993. And the Hydro Lab as a "critical asset"? Hardly.

I support more floodplain parks, but please, get the facts straight.

Unknown said...

American007. Thanks for responding to my observations. I've clarified them further in my complete article on this topic. I'll respond in summary to your comments here.

1. "Some facilities must be near a river or lake." If this is true, what is done in cities where there is no river or lake close by? It seems that some other alternatives must be available. Perhaps building near the river, but at a higher level -- having a parking ramp on the lowest level of the building with expensive equipment at higher levels.

2. "The servers in Lindquist Center saw no damage at all." What are we to tell the thousands of volunteers who put sand bags around the building? That their work was really not needed? The fact is that there was grave concern about the computing resources. So much so, that the computers were moved out of the Lindquist Center and placed in another building on campus with a backup generator installed to ensure continuous power. Those computers have yet to be returned to the Lindquist Center. We can be grateful that the waters didn't rise another 4 to 5 feet as anticipated. Yet, we should still have concern about putting computing facilities near large bodies of water.

3. "The CIC Water Plant north of the city is protected by the highest levees in the area. Only a 1000 or 5000 year flood has the potential to breach them." Great. Sounds like something we should do with the other valuable resources and assets we depend on. Something I suggested and you said couldn't be done (see point #1 above).

4. "The UI and CIC were able to function with the loss of steam and power." Yes, by shutting down and sending all employees and students home. Not an ideal solution. Despite this, there was grave concern about whether or not there would be sufficient power and steam. Backup generators were put in place in case the power services couldn't keep up with demand.

5. "The Hydro Lab isn't a critical asset." Who is to say what departments on campus are essential and important or not. What is true is that the Hydraulics Lab contains over a million dollars in equipment that was impacted by the flood.

As I said above, for more information on this, as well as links to scientific studies and research, you can refer to my complete article on this topic. ~ Gregory Johnson

Anonymous said...


I think that many of us are looking at issues like stormwater runoff and conservation design. We have to re-think conventional curb and gutter urban design standards. The RDG Group in Des Moines does a lot of this sort of conservation planning.