Water Over Road

By Dennis Keeney
06/28/2008–AMES TRIBUNE

The orange road sign said it all "WATER OVER ROAD." It blocked the entrance to Vandalia road from the north off of highway 65 on Friday, June 6. By June 10, even Highway 65 was closed by flooding.
From Ames to Waverly, the state has taken a major hit. Ames largely escaped the water at least so far, but we will feel the lingering effects of this disaster for quite a while, at least in the pocketbook.
In 1993, the entire state of Iowa was declared a disaster area, whereas this year the northwest has escaped the floods. But the summer is just started and the worst floods in 1993 occurred July 8 to 9.
I never will forget the sultry night when Roman Lynch finally decided to call off the Midnight Madness road race in Ames.
Let’s hope that does not happen again.
How will the state recover? 1993 gives some hints. State farmers suffered major losses, not only for the 1993 crop but the 1994 crop. Infrastructure costs were in the billions.
To make matters worse, our agriculture was just coming off the drought of 1987-88 that reached dust bowl proportions. Several cities were changed forever.
Now Gov. Chet Culver wants to rebuild Iowa. I think we should instead remodel Iowa while we have a chance.
Iowa and most of Midwest agriculture have evolved doing what they do best: grow corn and soybeans. In Iowa, we do this to the extreme. More than 92 percent of Iowa is in farms and 43 percent in corn and soybeans combined.
It is the most human-altered state in the union, and near the bottom of the list with respect to biodiversity and water quality
Our state industries revolve around corn and soybeans. The major state industries include crop breeding, seed production and sales, farm machinery manufacture and sales, railroads, grain handling, and now ethanol and biodiesel.
When the weather goes foul, as it has this year, and has done as recently as 1987-88 and 1993 the state economy nosedives. Water quality, soil erosion, rural communities – everything associated with our monoculture farm economy suffers.
The intensity and timing of the rains, when crops were small and the soil lay bare, did little to slow down the torrential rains and give water a chance to spread out and slow down. Soil erosion rates were off the chart.
To make matters worse, more than 100,000 acres of conservation reserve land were planted back to corn, and in anticipation of high grain prices, more fertilizer than ever was applied to the land, fertilizer that now is headed down the Mississippi River. Now there is a call for more conservation reserve land to be plowed for corn (for ethanol) next year.
The storms were not caused by our dysfunctional agriculture. Probably global climate change played a role, but no one knows for sure. There have been epic floods before. For example, the 1927 flood had 2 1/2 times the Mississippi River flow as did 1993 and a far greater loss of life. That was when the Corps of Engineers started building the levees along the Mississippi that now are being breached.
There have been other floods, many not recorded. In 1543, Explorer Hernando DeSoto observed major flooding at the confluence of the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers.
It is time to remodel our agriculture. Make it green. Have the nerve to turn our back on the political handouts (notice how the state already is salivating at the billions in federal monies that will go into repairing the damage).
Instead of paying for a reestablishment of row crops, let’s put perennials in erosion prone areas, plant trees in appropriate riparian zones and for windbreaks, rotate crops between longer lasting legumes and row crops. And we should insist that more, rather than less, land goes into conservation reserve. Rural communities will thrive and Iowa will be known as the Green State instead of the Flood Bowl.
There is WATER OVER ROAD. It is the roadblock that hinders true diversity and progress in Iowa. Natural disasters will happen again, and yet again.
But a diverse resilient state will weather these storms.

Dennis Keeney, of Ames, is a senior fellow at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy