Rising Waters, Rapid Changes:
Environmental change breeds devastating flood conditions across Iowa
During June 2008, devastating floods crippled much of the Midwest. Communities across Eastern Iowa suffered greatly. Large urban centers like Iowa City and Cedar Rapids were inundated with water, endured power outages and sanitation problems, and were virtually cut off from the rest of the state. Larger cities and small communities alike saw public infrastructure, businesses, homes, and sometimes entire neighborhoods decimated. According to ecologist and flood expert Connie Mutel, some 1,873 acres flooded in Iowa City and Coralville alone. An estimated 651 houses and 252 businesses underwent damage, temporarily displacing 1,841 people. Regional volunteers filled nearly 2.5 million sandbags with over 45 million pounds of sand and strategically placed them to protect their communities. Most of the major bridges and highways shut down as twenty-two feet of water covered large portions of the cities. Thankfully, no lives were lost. Water remained above the flood stage for thirty-two days and did nearly seven million dollars of damage to public property alone. Estimates for private damage are much higher, and the University of Iowa campus suffered $232 million in lost operations and physical destruction.
In the summer of 2013, flood recovery efforts entered their fifth year. Many UI faculty and students remain in temporary facilities while Iowa City and Coralville debate new flood policies and infrastructural changes, and some community residents still consider abandoning properties within the floodplain altogether.
But the story of the 2008 flood begins nearly two centuries ago. Around 1830, settlers began to dramatically change the Iowa landscape from one of diverse plant life to rowcrop agriculture. They introduced horse-drawn plows, slowly removed native prairies, used natural fertilizers like manure, rotated crops, and drained water from the land. In the early 1900s, farmers replaced horses with tractors and crop rotation with chemical pesticides. Agricultural output increased dramatically, but so did erosion, soil compaction, and pollution. Iowa’s soil, among the world’s best, could once absorb eight inches of water per day. Plowing, compaction, and erosion have decreased that amount to just over one inch per day. As a result, floods across Iowa have become flashier, faster, and more frequent.
Flooding in June 2008 devastated many Iowa City neighborhoods. For example, the Park View Terrace area, also known as Mosquito Flats, was built in 1959 within the flood zone. Nearly fifty years later, rising waters forced evacuation on June 13, 2008, stunning even survivors of previous flooding. The devastation displaced the neighborhood residents, and a process of buyouts and rebuilding eventually disbanded the long-standing Mosquito Flats community. Empty lots are tangible reminders of just how much large-scale environmental change can affect the individual Iowan.
Site content created by UI Graduate Seminar in Public History, Spring 2013.