Wetlands Key to Spring Flood

January 18, 2010 by  

By Nick Simonson

Reports this month have many people across the region looking out their front windows with worry. In the wake of back-to-back blizzards, the National Weather Service (NWS) released its early-season forecast for this spring’s flood potential for the upper Midwest. Some form of flooding is expected when the snow pack melts, with the NWS predicting an 80 percent chance of moderate flooding and a 50 percent chance of major flooding in the southern Red River Valley.

springfloodSeven major floods in the Red River Valley have occurred in the last thirty years, making up one-third of the noteworthy flooding events since 1826. The most notable was the flood of April 1997 which impacted nearly every city block of Grand Forks, N.D. and East Grand Forks, Minn., resulting in electrical fires that burned a large portion of downtown Grand Forks. As I anticipated graduating high school a month later, I watched on TV as families were displaced and students finished up their academics in cities as far away from the flooding as Bismarck and Dickinson, N.D.

On a visit to see family in Ulen, Minn. last spring, the familiar scroll of closings and calls for volunteers ran across the bottom of the television screen. The flood of 2009 along the Red and Sheyenne Rivers forced evacuations, emergency actions and emerging concerns over flood preparedness and flood prevention. The latter will require a reversal of man-made factors of flooding in the upper Midwest – the most notable is wetland destruction.

The world as we know it has changed since 1979. Enhanced row cropping and urban sprawl have resulted in the remarkable slash, burn and drain mentality across not only this region, but also the nation. What was once just a rallying cry for those looking to protect the rainforest in Brazil is now a concern of hunters, anglers and communities.

Through efforts to use all available acres, commercial farming programs have removed wetlands, sloughs and creeks by burning them black and implementing a system of drain tiling. While these activities produce marginal farmland, which may result in extra bushels in a good year, a wet spring may often result in a failed planting. Aside from the inconvenient crop loss, this process of wetland removal impacts the natural world in three primary aspects that degrade not only the quality of hunting and fishing in our area but also that of our day-to-day lives.

First, the rapid transmission of water from these low-lying areas exacerbates flooding, deposits sediments and introduces high levels of fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides into regional water supplies. Where pocket sloughs and stands of cattails once filtered out sediments and naturally treated this water, drains and ditches now rocket it into major watersheds. With the melt of spring snow or a heavy summer downpour, an elevated level of chemicals and siltation enters the water, impacting the quality of fisheries, aquatic biodiversity and the well-being of people and property downstream.
Second, even marginal habitat like small sloughs and previously unfarmable lowlands provide varied and necessary spaces for songbirds, watchable wildlife and game animals big and small. The removal of these habitats decreases the already diminished carrying capacity of our current environment. The potholes that made the Prairie Pothole region such a duck factory for the past five decades are quickly disappearing in the name of progress. From pheasants and ducks to big game animals like deer, less cover each year means a smaller chance of survival and decreased reproduction from season to season. In the end, this poses a threat to the pastimes of waterfowl and big game hunting that most residents of the region enjoy.

Finally, the flooding of last spring and that predicted to come is only worsened by the removal of wetlands which once acted as natural barriers that stored water and slowed its movement. With warm days in March and wet days in April comes the threat of rapidly moving floodwaters, which make a bad situation worse. All the diversions in the region between Fargo and Grand Forks couldn’t prevent what occurred last spring, as there was simply too much water pouring into the river systems through man-made drains and diminished wetland acreage.

While not as evident in the Midwest, the impact of urban sprawl and development of wetlands in places like Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana showed the new landscape’s inability to deal with major weather events. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the New Orleans area after Hurricane Katrina. Urban development has impacted our country’s coastal regions ability to cope with flooding in the same manner as wetland removal. And wildlife and human populations at the Gulf’s edge face similar concerns regarding habitat quality and water pollution.

Though much has been done to make the problem worse, it is never too late to turn things around. There are opportunities today to conserve, restore and protect wetlands that aren’t fit for farming or development. With increased agricultural technology, the production of already-suitable land can be maximized without having to claim marginal areas. Increased digital communications will ultimately reduce the need for travel and office space. More efficient construction technologies will decrease the need for expansive building complexes. These advancements will provide our generation with an opportunity to conserve the wetlands we have, restore what once was and protect it for the future; creating better habitat, cleaner waters and a healthier existence for both people and wildlife…in our outdoors.


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