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Sustainability

In the Mississippi Basin

Snow melting March 2, 2021.

Snow melt began running in the ditch yesterday as late winter progresses in Big Grove. I doubt we will get more snow. It’s been pretty dry for the last nine days. The dry, cold weather combined with a substantial snow melt is a cause for concern.

What fraction of the snow melt leaves our property is bound for the state park lake a little more than a hundred yards away, then to the Iowa River which is a tributary to the Mississippi River.

The Mississippi River’s drainage basin is the third largest in the world, exceeded in area only by the Amazon’s and the Congo’s. It stretches over 1.2 million square miles and encompasses 31 states and slices of two Canadian provinces.

Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future by Elizabeth Kolbert.

In 1966 I kept a scrapbook of newspaper clippings as an eighth grade project. Late winter, beginning in February that year, an ice jam hit the Quad-Cities area, resulting in flooding.

Unprecedented in size and steadily growing larger, a seven-mile-long “glacier” of ice is, like a giant cork, plugging the main channel of the Mississippi River from Credit Island to Buffalo.

Quad-City Times, Feb. 20, 1966.

My comparison of the ice jam was with the 1965 Mississippi River flood, one of the worst in Iowa history.

The great flood of 1965 on the Mississippi River, along the eastern border of the State, exceeded any flood known in 139 years. It caused damages probably in excess of ten millions of dollars in the State of Iowa. … The underlying cause of the flood was an abnormally cold winter which prevented the melting of an excessive snow cover in the upper reaches of the basin. Heavy rains late in March followed by rapid melting triggered the runoff which caused the floods.

The 1965 Mississippi River Flood in Iowa by Harlan H. Schwob and Richard E. Myers, United States Geological Survey, October 1965,

We are in that scenario — a cold winter which prevented snow melt the first two months of the year — at least until now. If the weather remains dry, the Mississippi may not flood downstream. If we get rain, there could be record flooding. Here’s hoping rain holds off until the snow melts. I say this despite the drought parts of Iowa have experienced this winter.

The 1965 and 1966 flooding formed my outlook about floods and how they happen. It is important to note the City of Davenport chose to do nothing to prevent the levee from flooding after these floods. City officials said it was to preserve the look of the levee, which later became the home of a jazz festival celebrating native son Bix Beiderbecke. Annual flooding and the damage it caused was acceptable in favor of aesthetics. At the time of the decision, the Quad-Cities was under economic pressure because businesses were curtailing manufacturing there. The economic boost of Bix made a difference, they said.

I visited the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers near Saint Louis with an eighth grade classmate some years ago. It’s a lot of water, as far as one can see. The idea there is an engineering solution to tame the Mississippi basin seemed preposterous when standing at water level and seeing the vast mixing of the two differently colored rivers. I doubt it can be done, especially with the unpredictable nature of climate change and how it is changing the hydrology of the Mississippi basin. The massive engineering projects to control the river in the Mississippi delta have made it a kind of hybrid human-nature phenomenon as Kolbert describes in her book.

A lot has happened (since 1989) to complicate the meaning of “control,” not to mention “nature.” The Louisiana delta is now referred to by hydrologists as a “coupled human and natural system,” or for short, CHANS. It’s an ugly term — another nomenclature hairball — but there’s no simple way to talk about the tangle we’ve created.

Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future by Elizabeth Kolbert

The river will eventual prevail in the Mississippi delta, despite humans’ best efforts, it’s easy to predict.

Each spring I think of our connection to the river and our place in the Mississippi basin. Ours may be a small role, yet it serves as another way we are connected to the rest of the world. As I contemplate working outdoors today, it is difficult to forget how powerless humans are against what’s left of the natural world.