Monday, August 18, 2008

Go with the Flow

August 18, 2008, 11:00 a.m.

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"How Do You Protect a City from Floods?" . . .

. . . The Gazette asks by way of a page one headline this morning.

It's kind of a no-brainer, as we say -- as The Gazette's story about Grand Forks, North Dakota, explains.

You "go with the flow" -- not against it.

You want to minimize or eliminate economic losses from floods? Don't put things of economic value where it is likely there will some day be flood waters. Pretty simple, huh?

Every community wants and needs some open areas anyway for walking, jogging and bicycling trails; for softball fields and Frisbee golf; for picnicking and camping; for prairies and pasture; for nature preserves and wetlands. By using the lands along rivers and streams for such purposes the community gains a number of other benefits as well as the attraction of flowing waters for those seeking recreation.

There are fewer floods. The ones that occur are less severe. They come on more slowly. And they cause no economic damage to businesses and homes.

How can that be?

Homes, businesses, roads and parking lots not only suffer economic losses, they actually help bring on the flooding and make it worse. Why? Because they cannot absorb rainfall. They increase, and speed up, the run off.

Grasses, prairies, wetlands and filters (growth immediately adjacent to rivers) can sometimes absorb as much as a five-inch rapid rain with no runoff whatsoever. They can prevent some flooding entirely. Such runoff as there may be will be much less, and slower, than from hard surfaced areas.

And if such a floodplain is ever covered with water the only loss is the inability to use the area for recreation until the waters recede, and the economic cost of a minor cleanup.

Such intelligent use of land -- building homes and businesses above and away from floodplains, and deliberately preferring floodplains for parks and conservation areas -- is not something that any preexisting community can do over night. But there's no reason why every community cannot adopt and execute such a 30- or 50-year plan.

* Immediately stop putting public money into (or providing TIFs and other tax forgiveness for) public, corporate or private structures in such areas -- whether for repair, rebuilding or new construction.

* Immediately focus on such land as is currently available to the city or county that is within floodplain areas and begin using it for recreational and conservation purposes.

* Modify zoning and building code regulations, and utilize such incentives as may be available, including buyouts, to encourage movement of businesses and homes out of floodplains.

By providing sufficient time for transitions, and depreciation accounting, the burden on current business and home residents would be minimized if not eliminated and the entire community would share in the benefits.

This is not a theoretical dream. Other communities are doing it. Iowa's cities should, too.

Clearly, Grand Forks' approach to flood control involved far more than greenways, but equally clearly greenways played a major role.

Here's the story:

"[T]he 2,200 acres of park and trails between the levees and the river have become an asset.

"Pedestrian bridges span the river at the north and south ends of the city.

"The former Lincoln Park neighborhood is a shady park with a Frisbee golf course and dog park.

[Photo Credit: Jim Sloslarek/The Gazette.]

". . . Bicyclists zip in and out of the levee gateways. Couples stroll along the water. There's steady foot traffic across the DeMers Avenue bridge.

"Shawn Clapp . . . said the riverfront is even busier when students return to the University of North Dakota for fall classes. People want to be protected from the river, but they still want to be around it . . .. [B]y protecting the city but inviting people into the greenway, [Grand Forks] accomplishes both.

"'It's just an entrance to your greenway,' he said. 'You almost forget that it's there.'"

Adam Belz, "The Floods of 2008: How Do You Protect a City from Floods?" The Gazette, August 18, 2008, p. A1; online as "How Do You Protect a City from Floods?" August 17, 2008, updated 12:17 p.m.

Coincidentally, the Register had an op ed this morning pleading for the protection of an Iowa greenway that's already in existence. John Wenck, "Seek other options: Don't build road through river greenbelt," Des Moines Register, August 18, 2008. Wenck, outreach coordinator of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, notes, "Iowa is one of the most altered states in the Union. More than 90 percent of the land has been converted into farm fields and development properties since the 1830s. . . . [T]here is a push to widen and extend Northwest 26th Street through the Des Moines River Greenbelt, which will destroy natural habitat and negatively impact recreation for miles along this beautiful stretch of river."

And see, "Flooding resulted in part because so many of Iowa's wetlands have been destroyed and the landscape has been so altered. The Register reported that 'tons of waste spilled into floodwaters.' Pesticides, chemicals, oils, sewage, hog manure and even hogs wound up in our waters." Neila Seaman, "Don't neglect environment in recovery discussions," Des Moines Register, August 13, 2008.

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