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The perfect storm


Fri, Aug 31st, 2007
Posted in Commentary

Not many of us would consider the recent rains that brought such devastating flooding to our region, the perfect storm. Most would consider the perfect storm as one that would have brought its 10+ inches of rain, with us making note of only how the water hugged the river's outer banks, not of how people hugged the roofs of their flooded homes. But indeed a perfect storm did hit us this month; a perfect storm of geography, topography, climate change, and land use.

It is easy to see how the bluffs and valleys make us vulnerable to heavy rainfalls but what has been more of an abstraction is how change in our weather patterns and land-use intensifies that vulnerability. Aside from an increase in air temperature, many scientists have also been quoted stating that climate change may result in greater weather extremes. For example, in Minnesota we may not see a decrease in average total rainfall but a decrease in the frequency of rain events with increasing rainfall event totals. What once was abstract is now a tangible reality. July gave us 3 inches of rain, August has given us 24. The blufflands can tolerate natural rainfall pressures; the flooding occurs when we receive more than 1.5 inches over six days. We now see what happens when we receive roughly 14 inches over three days.

Some say that there have always been natural changes in climate and humans aren't the cause and let us assume for the moment (and only for this moment) that is true. Regardless, we should look closely at whether the ways we are using the land allow it to tolerate the consequences of the natural change in weather and climate.

For the past century we have been drastically altering our landscape. In the last 100 years southeastern Minnesota's natural forest cover has been reduced from approximately 60% in the late 1800s to 15% in 1990. Most of this land has been developed or converted to cropland, even in historic floodplains. In the 6 counties that make up southeastern Minnesota (Fillmore, Goodhue, Houston, Olmsted, Wabasha, and Winona), corn and soybean acreage is at historic levels, making up 75% of all crops grown. Corn and soybeans are more susceptible to soil and water runoff than other perennial crops. By eliminating ground cover and replacing it with erodable crops, blacktop, concrete, and rooflines we are pushing more and more water into our already strained watersheds.

While I hope that the residents of Fillmore County will never have to experience the devastation of August 2007, I cannot help but think that a repeat is inevitable. Many questions hang in the air like the fine mist over the city of Rushford. Will businesses be rebuilt, can homes be resettled, and when does shock recede? An even greater question may remain however...when will we begin to undertake the comprehensive steps needed to prevent the floods of our future? We know what we can do...are we willing to do it? Perhaps we now need a perfect storm of landowners, elected officials, and concerned citizens who will come together to say we are.

Sara Sturgis, Education Director at Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center and daughter of a fourth generation farmer who has practiced and preached the virtues of no-till/ridge-till planting and erosion control for 20 years with no decrease in yield.

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