Here come the floods

CC/Flickr image: USGS

The first flood of the season arrived early in Natchez, Mississippi.

Meteorologists at the Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center of the National Weather Service had been tracking late January rainfall (“high-water events”) upstream in the Mississippi River Basin.

On Jan 21, the Tennessee River Valley got 1-2 inches of rain, on Jan. 22 the Ohio River Valley received 1.5 inches, on Jan. 24 1.5 inches fell over the Missouri River Valley and on Jan. 25 the Tennessee River Valley received another 1.5-3 inches of rain.

Under “normal” conditions, the Mississippi doesn’t rise significantly until March, as snow melt and other precipitation starts flowing down the river. Even prior to this early precipitation, autumn had dumped substantial rainfall on the Midwest (“the wettest October ever in St. Louis”). As a result, water tables are already high. Spring rain on top of a saturated ground equals more flooding.

Communities along rivers in the Midwest are bracing for would could be a whopper of a spring flood season, with the National Weather Service warning of a “high probability” of significant flooding along parts of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and their tributaries.

Big Watershed

The Mississippi River Basin is remarkably vast, drawing water from 31 states and two Canadian provinces and covering 40% of the continental United States. Water takes approximately three months to flow from the headwaters at Lake Itasca, Minnesota, to the Gulf of Mexico. Imagine the rain and snow melt shedding off this broad landscape, collecting in the capillaries of streams, merging into rivers, and amassing into the slow wave that rolls down the Mississippi. On the Lower Mississippi, forecasters can see a flood building a long way upstream.

On February 8, the Mississippi reached flood stage at Natchez. While the crest of the flood has already passed New Orleans, flood stage waters continue in some areas between Natchez and Baton Rouge. As the river remained above the 48-foot natural riverbanks this past weekend, crews in Natchez keep a close eye on “sand boils” that form as water displaces soil under the city’s levees. Sandbagging around these boils is part of the seasonal fight against floods. When the river subsides, the crews will wait for the next rise later this spring.

A report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program predicted for the Midwest:

“an increase in precipitation in winter and spring, more heavy downpours, and greater evaporation in summer, leading to more periods of both floods and water deficits.” More “droughts, floods and other extreme events,” in other words.

The flood of media

While the weather is a topic of daily chatter pretty much everywhere, I suppose most people in the U.S. pay little attention to river levels these days. “How’s the hydrological cycle?” rarely comes up in polite conversation. Rivers (and the seas) aren’t as central to most people’s livelihoods or for commerce and transportation as they once were — even though 500 million tons of commercial traffic continues to move on the Mississippi each year.

As spring nears and so does the snow melt, media coverage of Midwestern floods is beginning to appear.

Floods tend to be treated by the media as isolated — and dramatic — news stories. Throughout the year, some part of the world is likely to be passing through its rainy season. So flood stories are not hard to find.

Recent headlines from around the world:
: Eight people die in heavy Zambian floods due to poor drainage
Afghanistan: Afghan floods, avalanches kill 20
São Paulo: Living with the floods
Cumbria, Ireland: The extreme floods in Cumbria
Madeira, Portugal: Madeira floods kill 42, divers hunt for missing

Typhoon Ondoy; CC/Flickr image by IRRI Images

Treehugger recently posted this slide show on the destructive power of floods. The media coverage of the “Snowpocalypse” on the East Coast may transform into news of floods. And, alas, flood stories will become part of the saga in post-quake Haiti, especially when hurricane season arrives.

“Natural” disasters

Floods undoubtedly unleash tremendous pain and suffering around the world, wreaking havoc on the assumed stability of human social and economic affairs. What makes a flood a “natural disaster” — and a headline — is the presence of humans. The combination of human population growth, the expansion of settlements along rivers and coastlines, and increasing threats from climate destabilization will certainly mean more floods:

Droughts and floods account for more than half of the world’s total deaths from disasters, according to the United Nations. But unlike many other catastrophes, most water crises are man-made. Nature may bring the occasional monsoon downpour or dry spell, but environmentalists agree that global warming, dams, deforestation and slash-and-burn farming exponentially exacerbate these seasonal weather patterns.

Sea-level rise, storm surge, and extreme weather events will all contribute to coastal and riverine flooding. In many parts of the world, sewage, toxic runoff, and water-borne disease, like cholera, extend the impact of floods. Inevitably, the most vulnerable communities bear the burden of these disasters. In the U.S., of course, the disproportionate burden of Hurricane Katrina on the poorest residents of New Orleans remains the most visible example.

A flood, in a way, poses a variation on the old question, “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” Is it a media story? Flood and flooding are often used interchangeably. Perhaps there’s a distinction between a “flood” and “flooding.” A “flood” represents a condition or an event. “Flooding” is both a local phenomenon and a process, part of the temporal ebb and flow of ecosystems, the timeless hydrological cycles under which landscapes and other species have evolved.

Channeling the river

Since the late 1800s, the Mississippi River Commission has focused on improving navigation and flood control on the lower Mississippi. In 1928, the MRC launched the Mississippi River and Tributaries project, one of the world’s most extensive engineering projects, led by the Army Corps of Engineers.

In order to maintain “order,” much of the Upper and Lower Mississippi River has been dramatically channeled with levees and reservoirs and locks, in the process destroying wetlands and altering the flow of water and sediment. The Mississippi River Delta is in terrible shape. In the state of Missouri, the river now has less than one-fifth of the original wetlands. According to Ana Barros, a civil and environmental engineer at Penn State,

A channel has no capacity to adapt to variable conditions. Tamed, constricted, “It can’t evolve to prepare itself for the next event. This river has nowhere to go.”

For Barros, part of understanding the river is learning to respect it: recognizing that ultimately it will not be controlled. “We must learn to work with the river instead of against it.” This means recognizing the river as a complex, self-regulating system, and seeking to restore as much of its integrity as possible. At the same time, she says, “We have to anticipate the worst, and design systems that work well in failure.”

River restoration is a critical and growing field. Reconnecting the river and floodplains will help to reduce flooding. Even the Corps has begun to integrate conservation biology principles. But the field also needs more coordination and will have to evolve as our understanding of climate change and river ecosystems deepens.

Learning to work with the natural systems will also inevitably force significant tradeoffs. Along the Mississippi, agriculture and urban centers have expanded in conjunction with the channelization of the river. Reintegration of natural buffer areas will place constraints on the location of development along the river. Commercial traffic on inland waterways will also have to adapt. But this is a long-term process of necessary rethinking and restoration.

Ultimately, this restoration involves shifting the focus from “floods” to “flooding.” As Ana Barros suggests, we will have to learn to respect the river. We can also reacquaint ourselves with and embrace the pattern of the river:

Rivers pulse in reflection of the seasons. When there is snowmelt and during rainy seasons, the total volume of water in the river increases.  As water in the river channel rises, islands and riverbanks that are usually exposed are submerged. Increased levels of water scour the land it flows over and increases the amount of sediment carried with the current.  The process is reversed in the dry season. Land that was submerged is exposed, less water and slower current allow particles to settle out of the water and be deposited on the riverbed itself. Year after year this cycle is repeated.

Thanks to @River_Restore, @NEMWIUpperMiss, @DDimick, @troutheadwaters

Loosely Knit : 16 February, 2010

A collection of loosely-knit links. Not about blackbirds.

1. blackbird
Blackbird, Flickr CC image by Striatic (Bryan Partington)Flickr CC image by Striatic (Bryan Partington)

2. Pale Blue Dot: An Alien View of Earth

Twenty years ago last week, NASA’s Voyager 1 sent back this photo from four billion miles away. From NPR.

“It was just a little dot, about two pixels big, three big,” [Candace Hansen-Koharchek] says. “So not very large.”

But this was the Earth — seen as no human had ever seen it before.

The "Pale Blue Dot" photo of the Earth, taken from NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft.

The late astronomer Carl Sagan eloquently tried to express how he felt about this photo in his book Pale Blue Dot:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

See also: Audio Gallery: Views Of Earth From The Middle Ages To The Space Age

3. “Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in L.A.”

Jenny Price’s illuminating essay, reprinted in The Believer, weaves together the worlds of nature writing and Los Angeles.

To say there’s no nature in cities is a convenient way of seeing if I like being a nature lover and environmentalist but don’t want to give up any of my stuff. We cherish nature as an idea of wildness while losing track of the real nature in our very houses. We flee to wild nature as a haven from high-tech industrial urban life, but refuse to see that we madly use and transform wild nature to sustain the exact life from which we seek retreat. We make sacred our encounters with wild nature but thereby desacralize all other encounters. Or in other words, if we cannot clearly understand cities and our lives within them unless we keep track of our connections to nature, still there may be some basic things we prefer not to see and understand.

Ideally, if there’s any one argument I could persuade you of, it’s that our foundational nature stories should see and cherish our mundane, economic, utilitarian, daily encounters with nature—so that what car you drive and how you get your water and how you build a house should be transparent acts that are as sacred as hiking to the top of Point Mugu in the northern Santa Monica Mountains and gazing out over the Pacific Ocean to watch the dolphins leap, the ducks float, and the sun set.

Nature stories have been more than key L.A. stories. They’ve been the L.A. stories. They’re the driving stories in the city we use to think. It’s ironic, isn’t it? Los Angeles, which symbolizes the city as antinature, really has long flourished as a mecca for thinking and writing about nature, and for telling this powerful story in particular that nature writing has so dedicatedly perpetuated.

(via Good)

4. America’s Vanishing Silent Spaces

Newsweek interviews audio ecologist Gordon Hempton, author (with John Grossman) of One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World.

Why should we care about silence?
It has become an increasingly rare experience to be in nature as our distant ancestors were. Even in our national parks today, despite laws to protect them, you are much more likely to be hearing noise pollution, particularly overhead aircraft, than you are to be hearing only the native sounds of the land. Yet to be in a naturally silent place is as essential today as it was to our distant ancestors. Besides spending time away from the damaging noise impacts present at our workplace, neighborhoods, and homes, we are given the opportunity not only to heal but discover something incredible—the presence of life, interwoven! Do you know what it sounds like to listen for 20 miles in every direction? That is more than 1,000 square miles. When I listen to a naturally silent place and hear nature at its most natural, it is no longer merely sound; it is music. And like all music, good or bad, it affects us deeply.

Air Traffic Noise Blankets the Nation, Even in Parks

See also:

5. Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

from Wallace Stevens’ famous poem

When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

See also Corey Finger’s piece on “Thirteen Ways…” in the blog, 10,000 Birds.

Credits: NASA/JPL (Pale Blue Dot); Graphic from One Square Inch of Silence (“Blanket of Noise” map)

Looseleaf : 15 February, 2010

A collection of loosely-knit links.

1. The Grid, Our Cars and the Net: One Idea to Link Them All

Robin Chase

From Wired last year:

Robin Chase considers the future of electricity, the future of cars and the internet three terms in a single equation, even if most of us don’t yet realize they’re on the same chalkboard. Solve the equation correctly, she says, and we create a greener future where innovation thrives. Get it wrong, and our grandchildren will curse our names.

Chase, founder of ZipCar, proposes a smart grid for electricity and information that links transportation, power, and the internet through mesh networking, involving cars as network devices.

Related (on New Study: Smart Grid Would Shrink Carbon Footprint by 18 Percent

2. Flyway Cities Coalition

The National Wildlife Federation‘s program to improve wildlife habitat in “urban areas located within the flyway that break the connectivity of natural habitats.”

The Flyway Cities Coalition is an innovative approach towards creating healthier environments for people and wildlife living in wildlife habitat corridors, or “flyways.”  Targeting key urban areas throughout the United States, each city’s Coalition brings together the efforts of local stakeholder groups, magnifying their individual strengths as they work towards common sustainability goals.  Flyway Cities Coalitions will restore viable habitat for native wildlife and plant populations, educating others about local and regional environmental issues, and encouraging communities to engage in projects that create a better urban environment for everyone.

3. Purple Martins in snow and 100,000 blackbirds

From David J. Ringer’s blog, Search and Serendipity:

I heard the distant clamor of blackbirds and finally spotted a river of Common Grackles up high, moving south. Thousands of birds streamed past — and that was only the beginning. They kept coming. Thousands became tens of thousands, and somewhere along the way, the Red-winged Blackbirds started pouring toward me as well.

The grackles moved high in long ribbons that, at times, stretched farther than I could see in both directions. One such stream passed overhead continually for 20 minutes. The red-wings were much lower, flying in wide bands and in a slightly different direction. Vertigo gripped me briefly as the birds rushed past.

You have to look at the photo more closely to see birds for the trees. Click on the photo or the link below.

Blackbirds going to roost

OK, you have to see this big to get it, and then you can see a cloud of grackles in the sky, a small, loose flock of red-wings lower down, and thousands of birds packed into the lower tier of trees.

4. The Sense of Wonder in the Wildlife Garden

From a guest post by Kelly Senser in Carole Brown’s wonderful blog, Ecosystem Gardening:

[Rachel] Carson acknowledged that some adults would feel ill-equipped to teach children about the natural world because they lacked an understanding of it themselves.  But the scientist held this belief: It is not half so important to know as to feel.

Admittedly, I’ve still much to discover. But the thirst is there—for my family too.  Indeed, that’s what I love most about our backyard habitat: It invites us to tune in.  It’s a place to nourish our children’s sense of wonder, as well as our own. We planted our garden with wildlife in mind and are daily rewarded with scenes such as bluebirds nesting, monarchs emerging from their chrysalides and mantises stalking their prey.

5. (Video) The World According To 9 Year Olds

Erik Kruse, from Nordic Conference on Service Design and Service Innovation

Check out the video in the post.

We previously pointed out the above quote, then stumbled upon the video below where 9-year-old children answer some questions about how they see the world.

Questions include: identifying the most famous celebrities, their first computer interactions, and their fears. If nothing else, it will make you feel a bit older than you currently are.

Image credits: Phil Hawksworth (Robin Chase); David J. Ringer (blackbirds); Matt Cottam (childhood)

City of (Lost) Streams

Where there is life, there is water. Water finds its way across a terrain. It shapes the land and connects places within a landscape. Human settlements inevitably begin around water: oceans, rivers, streams, springs, wells, aqueducts.

Where there are people, the landscape changes in unique ways.  As cities grow — and as urbanization spreads — cities begin to replace water’s imprint with a human touch: graded and paved surfaces, channeled and covered streams, filled marshes and wetlands.

Water, of course, doesn’t disappear. It still courses beneath the urbanized landscape. Broken sewers, basement seepage, and the occasional sinkhole serve as reminders. Stormwater management traditionally approached water as a problem — which it can be; paradoxically, the problems often get worse when settlements are engineered with the belief that nature can be tamed.

As city administrators increasingly recognize the value of natural amenities and ecological functions, such as flood control, and begin to reincorporate nature’s infrastructure into urban planning, there is a growing effort to “daylight” once-covered streams. The technology called the city continues to evolve. Even recognizing the presence of streams and knowing the history of a place can change one’s perceptions about a city.

Here are some examples of work that document and/or recover urban streams:

I’ll take Mannahatta

Mannahatta image from The New Yorker/The Mannahatta Project

New York City, the first megacity, is well-known for the grid of streets overlayed on Manhattan Island. Inspired by a British surveyor’s detailed map of the island in 1782, Eric Sanderson of the Wildlife Conservation Society merged landscape ecology, computer modeling, and historic accounts to reconstruct — block by block — an image of the island Henry Hudson would have encountered in 1609. This combination of art and science became The Mannahatta Project, after the Lenape name for the island. Through his work, Sanderson has located 89 of the 300 original streams documented by the British Headquarters map. This vision of what New York once was offers a great framework for imagining the ecological future of New York.

More about Mannahatta here. Also check out Sanderson’s talk at TED.

Interesting sidebar: In 1924 traffic administrators proposed the draining and filing of New York City’s East River (actually a tidal strait) to accommodate development. (from a post in the fascinating blog, Landscape and Urbanism. Also check out this related item on “The Blue Road.”)


Urban landscapes embody a combination of factors, including topography, population, and history. Adam Levine, a consultant to the Philadelphia Water Department, presents a fascinating glimpse of the city’s hydrological history on his website, Philly H2O. Levine illustrates the changes to the topography of the urban watershed with some remarkable maps.

Philly H2O -- Historic StreamsPhilly H2O -- Modern Streams 2
The first map shows the streams that once ran on the surface in Philadelphia. The second map shows the few streams that still run on the surface — and the sewer pipes that now run the other streams once flowed.

Levine writes:

As in many urban areas, most of Philadelphia’s surface streams, encompassing many square miles of watershed, were systematically obliterated over the course of the city’s development. Diverted into pipes — their valleys leveled with millions of yards of fill and overlaid with a grid of streets — these streams now flow in some of the largest sewers in the city’s 3,000-mile drainage system. In most cases, these projects were designed as combined sewers, carrying raw sewage along with the stream flow and stormwater runoff. For this reason alone (and there are many others), it would be prohibitively expensive to “daylight” such streams (that is, uncover the streams and restore them to something akin to a natural state), since it would mean building a completely separate system of pipes to carry the sewage.

Levine points out that this pattern of converting streams was standard practice during the 19th and 20th centuries. The early era of sanitary engineering significantly improved public health by helping to control epidemics, such as typhoid fever, among the burdgeoning urban population. The result, however, is that “The modern map of the city’s surface streams is now disturbingly blank.”

Los Angeles

Flickr/CC image by Ron Reiring

Growing up in Los Angeles, I often saw the concrete Los Angeles River from the window of a car; it seemed a rather broad interpretation of the word “river.” I was also fascinated by the Tujunga Wash, a rectilinear channel running through the San Fernando Valley that carried away the seasonal rains. Think the trench on the Death Star in Star Wars. History classes taught us about roads that followed Native American trails or El Camino Real, the 19th-century road connecting Spanish missions. But school told us virtually nothing about the natural history of the streams and rivers, of the land beneath our feet.

Now that I live in Brooklyn, I’ve recently come across a couple of wonderful blogs about water in L.A.. Journalist Emily Green writes about water and politics in Los Angeles and the West at Chance of Rain, as well as for the L.A. Times. And Jessica Hall and Joe Linton’s blog, L.A. Creek Freak, explores the waterways and ways of water in an arid urban environment. These blogs have offered a new perspective of the city. This quote by Jessica Hall from an interview in LA Weekly captures the value for revealing the ecology of the land:

“When I was growing up here, the idea that there was any nature at all around me wasn’t even on my mind,” says Hall. “My father is from a rural part of Kentucky, so my childhood experience of nature was from there, or from New Mexico, where my mom was from. I had no experience of nature in Hawthorne, or even Los Angeles. It wasn’t part of my consciousness. How can you ask people to be good stewards of the environment when they have no concept of what’s around them?”

A significant movement to revitalize the Los Angeles River is taking shape. These blogs also introduce community efforts to restore Ballona Creek and the Arroyo Seco watershed. A media capital, key port city, and gateway to the Pacific, Los Angeles is also situated within the California Floristic Province, considered one of the global diversity hotspots by Conservation International.

Other points West

Concern about urban streams have brought together community members in other cities across the West. In Vancouver,  an estimated 700 kilometers of streams flow through storm sewers. Groups have worked to restore Brewery Creek and Guichon Creek. Local groups in Berkeley, California, have daylighted parts of Strawberry Creek, which runs through the city, as part of rebuilding community. High Country News reported on urban watershed restoration in the industrial East Bay (San Francisco Bay), where a coalition has come together to address urban sustainability and environmental justice in North Richmond. Community activists and water management specialists have developed an “eyes on the creek” mentality, to borrow from Jane Jacobs,  understanding that upstream and downstream communities are tied together by the health of Wildcat Stream. Phil Stevens, executive director of the Urban Creeks Council, “This is basically “Creeks 2.0.’ The idea is that we’re not just doing a single restoration project and moving on, but looking at an integrated management model that could make the watershed an asset for the entire county.”

Seoul, Korea

Flickr/CC image by Kyle Nishioka

One of the largest and most successful daylighting projects has converted a capped stream running through the heart of Seoul, Korea into a centerpiece of urban revitalization. The Cheonggyecheon or “clean stream” project “peeled back the pavement” to create a green corridor through the city of 10 million inhabitants. Benefits have included decreased air pollution, lower summer temperatures in the vicinity, and an inviting area for active (running) and passive (sitting by the stream) recreation. Even local wildlife has responded, with significant increases in the number of fish, bird, and insect species reported.

According to Lee In-Keun, the assistant mayor for infrastructure, “We’ve basically gone from a car-oriented city to a human-oriented city.” Cheonggyecheon has become an inspiration for other cities, including Los Angeles (L.A. Creek Freak), looking to recapture the vitality of streams and improve the livability of downtowns.


In developing awareness of local and regional ecosystems, human communities can better plan for resilience in the face of uncertain conditions (climate destabilization, constrained resources) and understand how their specific landscapes are tied into the “network of networks” that comprise the ecosphere. Recognizing human and natural histories of place allow us to grow roots, even in an mobile, information-driven culture. Residents of cities and suburbs everywhere can embrace their “hidden streams.”

Five ways of looking at the U.S.

Here are five maps I came across during the last few weeks.

They involve high-speed passenger rail; a re-imagined map for the U.S. electoral college; landscape conservation; North American migration flyways; and wildlife “megalinkages.” The images are accompanied by minimal commentary, mainly their source info.

I’ll leave it to you to make any connections. Your thoughts and comments are much appreciated.

U.S. federal investments in high-speed passenger rail were announced last week. Another map of high-speed rail corridors is available here. (Map: US Department of Transportation)

What if the U.S. were divided into 50 states with equal populations (based on 2000 Census)? Neil Freeman produced this thought experiment about electoral college reform. Covered by GOOD; Matt Yglesias; and James Fallows in the Atlantic (here, here, and here). (Map: Neil Freeman)

Landscape conservation cooperatives proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. I previously posted about this new framework for addressing conservation at the landscape scale. (Map: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Migratory flyways (Map: Montana Raptor Institute for Research and Education)

The Wildlands Network and The Rewilding Institute stress conserving four “MegaLinkages” to preserve habitat for larger predatory species integral to the fitness of the continental ecosystem. (Map: The Rewilding Institute)

Any thoughts?