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The Expansionist
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
 
Flood P(l)ains. The news is filled with accounts of massive flooding in the Midwest, and of the Army Corps of Engineers and local people working to strengthen levees and raise their effective height with sandbags. Isn't this how we got into this mess in the first place?
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Reporters refer to prior record flooding in 1993. I think that must be the year I flew from New Jersey to California with a couple of members of my family, and we looked out the window and saw the water wide across fields on either side of the Mississippi. It was quite a sight — from an airplane thousands of feet above the pain.
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Rivers are meant to flood. The area alongside their banks into which excess water pours, in nature, is called the "flood plain" (or "floodplain", one word). If rivers are allowed to pour over their banks into their natural floodplain along their entire course, no one area is hit very hard, because the volume of water is rarely or never great enuf to fill the entire flood plain, along the river's entire course, to more than a few feet. One of the world's oldest civilizations, Egypt, was dependent upon the regular seasonal flooding of the Nile, which carried rich new nutrients in the form of silt to be deposited over a few miles outward from midstream over its entire course. Somehow the Egyptians could not only survive such regular flooding, but profit from it mightily. But Americans can't. Thousands of years later, with all our technology, we can't adjust to the idea that rivers flood, and live with it. No, we have to FITE Nature, and a lot of the time, we lose.
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The ancient Egyptian stance was literally "go with the flow", and they built a great civilization upon it. Our stance is to fite the flow. As Dr. Phil might ask, "How's that working for you?
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American floodwater policy is profoundly wrongheaded. By channelizing our rivers, we lose much of the historic benefit of periodic flooding. We insist on building houses and barns on low ground, and grazing animals and sowing crops right up to the riverbank. No. Don't do that.
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Accept that rivers flood, and provide for it. Set aside, in low-lying areas subject to flooding, natural wetlands and man-improved parks and water-themed recreational lands for a couple of miles out from the river. Mark the riverbank with Riverwalks, and build levees, if at all, only at a distance great enuf that the height of levee needed there will be much less than it would if the levee were right at the riverbank. Build on stilts, be they obvious or subtle (such as masonry foundations with wide openings on all sides of a crawlspace), all structures that need to be within range of expected flooding. And enjoy the spectacle when the river overtops its banks, from elevated boardwalks, gazebos, and bandstands that convert a flood into a temporarily more magnificent river.
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Celebrate rivers. Enjoy them. Don't fite them.
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(I am amused/annoyed by the public-service announcements that run on my local PBS stations that a flood can happen to anybody, so you need flood insurance because homeowners insurance does not cover flood damage. Oh? A flood can happen to anybody? I live on a hill, about 190 feet above sea level, and miles from the nearest river, which is at sea level. If my house is affected by a flood, there isn't going to be enuf insurance on the planet to cover the damage. So no, not everybody needs flood insurance. But if you do, yes, you should get it, because standard homeowners insurance really does not cover flood damage. Or hurricane damage, for all those of you tempted to flee the Frost Belt for the Hurricane Belt.)
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To the extent that floods can be destructive even if such overflow features are built, we now have long-term weather forecasting that can model the geographic extent and depth of flooding. If we build an Interstate Highway System for Water, as I keep urging, we can move water out of the expected flood area to other areas for days and even weeks in advance to make room in the areas evacuated for the sudden influx of water volumes we know to expect. If the modeling was wrong and we take away too much water, we can always just reverse the process and move water back. An Interstate Highway System for Water would move water in all directions.
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The Chinese built the first major canal, connecting the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, in about 600 A.D. The earliest portions of that truly Grand Canal (1,100 miles long) were created at some uncertain time, but probably around 500 B.C.! This is not a new idea, people, and is "groundbreaking" only in a literal sense. The Chinese linked together pre-existing small rivers, lakes, and marshes to create a waterway that could be used to divert water and carry shipping. The shipping function sometimes required locks to raise boats over obstacles too large to cut thru, and the Chinese invented the "pound lock" (what we today call simply locks) to do that, surmounting heights of 138 feet — in the 900's A.D. If the Chinese could do that with the primitive technology of their time, what could we not do today?
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(The current U.S. military death toll in Iraq, according to the website "Iraq Coalition Casualties", is 4,101 — for Israel.)



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