Comparing the Floods

140th Street
140th Street

ATHERTON WETLAND— The flooding continues here. It has not reached the level of either 1993 or 2008— yet.

As I write, the county has issued mandatory evacuation orders for people who live in low lying areas. What used to be a 100 year flood needs a new name, as this spring brought the third major flooding in 20 years. One has to believe that a cause of the frequent and extreme weather is our changing climate, wrought by greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activity. The flooding is a reminder of the importance of working toward a solution to the climate crisis.

A proximate cause of the flooding is the rain. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources reported record rainfall,

swinging from drought concerns to flooding worries within weeks, Iowa has set two precipitation record highs in 2013: the statewide average precipitation for March, April and May collectively at 16.65 inches; and a year-to-date precipitation total of 18.92 inches. These are highs among 141 years of records.

What to do but adapt?

If the reader clicks on the photo, there is a building on the left side of the image. During June 2008, the flood waters reached the eaves of this building. In 1993, the building did not exist.

We live near Lake Macbride and in 2008, the trail next to the lake was covered in water. It would take a lot more water to fill the watershed enough to reach our home, so were never in danger of a wet basement.

We’ll see how the flood of 2013 plays out, but based on the reports on social media, it may fall somewhere between 1993 and 2008 levels. Iowans are getting used to frequent flooding, indicating advanced stages of adaptation to changing climate.


Spring Flooding and Moving On

Flooded Wetland
Flooded 140th Street

ATHERTON WETLAND— 140th Street west of the Ely Blacktop has been flooding for a couple of weeks. The recent heavy rains, and those forecast for today and tomorrow are expected to create more flooding. The local result is the Atherton Wetland gets wet, holding water destined for the Coralville Lake, the Iowa River and beyond— serving its purpose in our owned and built environment.

Atherton Wetland
Atherton Wetland

June is a time of flooding, something Iowans are getting used to managing. The water is expected to flow over the 712 foot Coralville Lake spillway later this week, and the government is making preparations for the flood. In the personal world of quotidian affairs, the Ely blacktop is still open, and I should be able to make my way to Cedar Rapids later today to run errands.

Our lawn is lush, green and long— a habitat for birds, rabbits and other small mammals and amphibians. When the rain ends, it will be a four hour project to mow, bag and pile the grass clippings near the garden: a harvest of mulch for a garden that badly needs weed suppression. Garden weeds like rain as much as the lawn does.

Atherton Wetland
Atherton Wetland

It is just as well the rain came last weekend. There is plenty of inside work to do and the garden can be a distraction. This year, more than others, I feel a connection to the earth. Despite the rain, I harvested lettuce, arugula, spring garlic, chives, spring onions and radishes for our dinner salad. Perhaps it is the work on the farm and the understanding of where our food comes from that pulls me in. Perhaps something deeper.

Would I could let go and spend my days tending the garden and harvesting the produce of rain, sunlight, soil and biodiversity. For now, with the reality of flooding roads and other exigencies, that remains a dream.

Sustainability Work Life

Revolution in the Home Kitchen

My Great Grandmother
Great Grandmother

LAKE MACBRIDE— The idea that a revolution should take place in the home kitchen is not unique to this blog. My focus on the relationship between the home kitchen and local food— that the latter won’t be viable in the way it could be without changes in the former— is not unique either. However, a recent New York Times article, “Pay People to Cook at Home” by Kristin Wartman demonstrates the disconnect between what is going on at the grassroots level regarding local food and priorities in urban cultural centers.

Wartman, a nutritionist and blogger, posits the following,

“Those who argue that our salvation lies in meals cooked at home seem unable to answer two key questions: where can people find the money to buy fresh foods, and how can they find the time to cook them? The failure to answer these questions plays into the hands of the food industry, which exploits the healthy-food movement’s lack of connection to average Americans.”

Her solution, as the title of the article suggests, is to pay people to cook at home, “(to place) a cultural and monetary premium on the hard work of cooking and the time and skills needed to do it,” including a government program. My suggestion is she hop on the shuttle from her home in New York City down to Washington, D.C. and witness the vast sea of farm industry lobbyists on Capitol Hill. She may then realize that hell would freeze over before any help in paying home cooks would be forthcoming from the federal government.

One can agree with the idea of placing a cultural premium on the value of home cooking, although we don’t necessarily want to return to the era of my great grandmother and her kitchen garden (see photo). The question is how, as a society, do we get there?

The future of local food and a revival of home cooking with whole foods is more dependent upon economics than upon time. If the economics are great, people will find the time. It is common knowledge among local food enthusiasts that the current economic paradigm regarding food, cooking and eating depends upon cheap energy.

Wendell Berry recently asked Michael Pollan, “what will be the effect on farming, gardening, cooking and eating of the end of cheap energy? Are physical work and real cooking going to remain optional?” Readers can listen to Pollan’s answer here. The gist of it is that as cheap energy fades from view, people will be required to become more self-reliant as a form of adaptation to the environmental crisis. This would likely drive more of whatever were least expensive, including local food and home cooking if they provided superior value, something it is not clear they do, at least for now.

The relationship between local food systems and cheap energy is important. I dismiss so-called food miles as an overly simplified argument. There is a complex but valid argument about the relationship between artificially low energy prices and high prices in local food systems that is worth pursuing. It is further complicated  by the fact that the end of cheap energy will be delayed due to the proliferation of hydraulic fracturing and the abundance of natural gas it produces. The complexity of the relationship between energy prices and local food requires further exposition in another post.

People can agree that obesity is a national and local problem. They can agree that chronic diseases, related to eating habits (including salt, sugar and fat consumption), drive a segment of higher health care and related health insurance premium costs. Where there is difficulty agreeing is in answering the question whether to take a homemade brown bag lunch to work, or spend the 30-minute break going to the gas station to have $1 per slice pizza for lunch. Today, the economics of direct food prices drives the decision at one of my workplaces.

The revolution in the home kitchen will begin once we deal with the environmental crisis, cheap fuel and the false notion that there is not enough time for what is important. The economics of food are driven by these things. That won’t happen anytime soon, not until the importance is escalated by some imminent, existential reality. It is not as simple an answer as creating another government program.

A better answer may be to seek ways to recognize the value of all work in society. That too is a complex problem wanting an answer. Something this blog is working toward.


Earth Day 2013

1970 Earth Day Button
1970 Earth Day Button

LAKE MACBRIDE— There is little new to say this Earth Day. It’s not that I’m down about it, but most everything has been said before.

What started in high school as a way to participate in a national environmental movement by selling green and black buttons leading up to April 22 has become institutionalized in a way that takes the punch out of things.

Government and corporations have Earth Day activities, and not as many of them this year compared to last. It is a sign that corporate reputation management is at play more so than the grassroots efforts of men and women who want to see our government act on the Keystone XL pipeline, reduce the use of hydrocarbon and nuclear fuels, and preserve our air, land, water and biodiversity.

Earthrise 1968
Earthrise 1968

There are a lot of things individuals can do to reduce, reuse and recycle, and many people do them year around. What is lacking today is the political will to reduce CO2, methane, mercury, and other emissions. Our culture is driven by corporations more than government, and the business models upon which they operate continue to consider the atmosphere the same way we do an open sewer. That has to change if human society is to survive. It’s not just me saying that.

It has been a long struggle to get environmental issues to have parity with war and peace, economic progress, social justice, and man’s inhumanity to man. Environmental issues are not at parity yet, but should be.

What we know today is that the time for individual efforts is past. Only by joining together with like-minded colleagues will change be possible, and there is no agreement on what change is desirable, nor a path to determining how to proceed.

For a while, we must stop talking, stop thinking… and consider where our lives on the planet place us. Earth Day or no, many will reduce, reuse and recycle as these behaviors have become part of our daily habits. It is not enough.

On Earth Day 2013, I plan to dig in our garden, and let the work produce a sweat as I plant spinach, radishes and turnips. A brief retreat from talking and thinking, appreciating the irony that it was agriculture that started the release of greenhouse gases that led us to today.

What is the greater good when it comes to the environment? I don’t know, but more than seven billion others on the blue green planet have a stake in an answer. It’s time to renew our efforts to find one.

Environment Social Commentary

Pelicans and Cranes

Crane at Mehaffey Bridge
Crane at Mehaffey Bridge

LAKE MACBRIDE— The pelican migration is underway, and flocks of the white and black birds fly lazily— above our lakes and river— back and forth in a pattern I recognize, but can’t adequately describe. Pelicans appear here twice a year. I stopped during a trip to North Liberty to watch them fly near the construction site for Mehaffey Bridge.

I am leading a new life with my beater of a car. The radio has six preset buttons, of which four are set. I haven’t tested the cassette and CD players and listen mostly to a country station in Cedar Rapids owned by Cumulus Media. The music fits my new lifestyle, or seems to.

Country music on Cumulus gets me thinking. It is imbued with a certain familiar life, and while on a trip to work or to market, it is easy to suspend disbelief and listen. The songs are places where I don’t have to be me until Monday, people cope with loss as they drive your truck, and where “I found Jesus” rhymes with “I wrecked my first car. I tore it all to pieces.” Whether one likes the new country music or not, the snippets of reality are tangible, visceral the way manual labor is— stripping away the intellectual aspect of our lives. That may be the point of my predilection to hit number four on the presets most often— sometimes it is good to just stop thinking.

Consider the cranes. Man-made with engineering specifications that enable a reach four stories above the roadway to build the new bridge. They are built to fit the task, work from floating barges, and reach heights limited by design. Our lives today tend to be more like cranes than pelicans. Near these man-made lakes, we lean toward believing Bill McKibben, that we are at the end of nature. Except no one told the pelicans.

Beyond the fixed world of my used Subaru, with its country music tuner and enough life to keep me going for a while, are the flocks of pelicans, doing what pelicans do— part of which is inspiring us to believe there is more to life than what we find on main traveled roads needing an overhaul.

Environment Sustainability

Nuclear Power in 2013

Nuclear Power? - No Thanks
Nuclear Power? – No Thanks

LAKE MACBRIDE— A group called Saving America’s Farm Ground and Environment (S.A.F.E.) is hosting a meeting tomorrow about MidAmerican Energy’s study of two sites in Iowa where they may propose to build nuclear power plants. A representative from the electric utility is scheduled to brief the group about their plans, something they did previously only in a private meeting with land owners near the proposed site at 150th Street and Sweetland Road in rural Muscatine. My friends at Blog for Iowa posted details about the meeting here. Under different circumstances, I would attend, but alas, I have to work a job to pay my utility bills.

Nuclear Power Plant Site
Nuclear Power Plant Site

If the global mind exists, as Al Gore posits in his book “The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change,” it is powered by electricity. How society will produce the electricity to communicate is an open question. In a consumer society, electricity also powers cooking, laundry, staying up after sunset, and a host of personal and industrial tasks. Participants in a consumer society don’t often consider the question because the electric utility bill is inexpensive compared to other budget items.

What people do know is they don’t want a nuclear power plant in their back yard, and that is why people in Muscatine County are getting together. The memories of Chernobyl and Fukushima are too fresh, there is no safe level of radiation, and while the geography of the proposed site appears to be in the middle of nowhere, it is on prime farmland, and of interest to people from miles around.

MidAmerican Energy has a track record of obfuscation about their nuclear plans, and tends to operate in a perpetual salesmanship mode full of talking points and puffery. Locals are skeptical of their assertions, but until now, have been denied access to the discussion. This makes tomorrow’s meeting important, especially if the utility company is willing to listen.

A simple truth about nuclear power is that it is too expensive for anyone to capitalize, including Warren Buffett’s MidAmerican Energy, without financial considerations that a public utility can get only through legislative action. MidAmerican’s legislative agenda regarding new nuclear power was blocked during the 84th Iowa General Assembly. In a sense, the community resistance to a new nuclear power plant is putting the cart before the horse. Nonetheless, we should be listening to hear the reaction and press coverage of the concerned citizens meeting tomorrow. If we care about sustainability in a turbulent world, this activity is one to watch.


Talk of the County

LAKE MACBRIDE— People were talking about the planned re-zoning of a farm near here, to subdivide it into the first-ever cluster of homes after the 2010 policy that created the rural cluster designation. On Tuesday, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors approved the first and second reading of a resolution supporting the plan.

I wrote to a friend on Monday, the cat is out of the bag— urban has already sprawled from Iowa City to Cedar Rapids. What difference does one more subdivision make in the Corridor? Those protected by stopping the development would be affluent landowners, living on expansive properties in expensive homes. I can see why they wouldn’t want a rural cluster invading their relatively secluded reserves. The problems of the affluent bourgeois are not mine.

The property owner was quoted in the Iowa City Press Citizen, “everyone here had an opportunity to purchase 40 acres of prime farm land, as they put it. The opposition claims how important it is to preserve farmland and this area, yet no one would make that commitment,” she said. “They have been relentless in this obsession and seem to think that they and only they know what’s best and feel absolute in their self-appointed role as guardians… The bottom line is that I own this property and as owner I have property rights.”

To the extent we accept the premise of land rights— that Black Hawk and Poweshiek intended to cede their rights after the Black Hawk War— it is hard to take issue with the property owner. What is bothersome is there is a real climate crisis ongoing, and this local talk is a diversion from something much more important than whether another subdivision of McMansions is built.