We need to address climate change before our own inaction causes irreversible and permanent damage to some of the most valuable natural resources we have left, our rivers, the habitats in and along them, and the wild life that depends upon them.
I have had the great privilege to paddle over 2,000 miles of Iowa rivers in the past 5 years. I have been surveying these rivers—sections of 28 different rivers in the state—for the Iowa Water Trails Program, a program of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (IDNR). I have done biological reconnaissance for them and noted interpretive opportunities along the way. I submit long reports to IDNR, together with 150 to 300 photos of each river section, complete with important GPS points, and more. These reports are used to then create new brochures in both paper and downloadable versions so Iowans can get to know Iowa’s incredible water trails and, along the way, the wildlife with which we share this state. (Go to: https://www.iowadnr.gov/Things-to-Do/Canoeing-Kayaking/Water-Trail-Maps-Brochures).
Camping at county or state parks, my wife and I have gotten to see and know a lot of Iowa. I grew up in southeast Iowa and paddled the Skunk, the Iowa, the Cedar, the Des Moines, and, of course, the Mississippi as a teenager with my brothers. My love for rivers and for Iowa comes from those formative experiences in my youth. Seeing so many of Iowa’s rivers, now as an adult with over 40 years of experience as a professional wildlife biologist and naturalist, has given me a unique perspective. I have spoken to the public about my concerns in several dozen presentations over the past couple of years.
Among the many concerns I have voiced is that our rivers are changing rapidly. Change, of course, is a constant and we should never expect Nature to stay in a static state. But it is the direction and the rapidity of the change that is of concern. It is natural for rivers to flood. (As a high schooler, I worked on the levies along the Mississippi in 1965, piling sand bags in a vain attempt to hold back the spring flood waters.) Water levels rise and fall annually with snow melt or heavy rains upstream in the watershed. It’s why all rivers have things called “flood plains” where rivers normally flood, enriching that floodplain, renewing its backwater areas and oxbows, making new channels occasionally. Flooding is normal.
Today, however, what is not normal is the frequency of those floods. Once a common and expected springtime event, floods now occur in our rivers 2 or 3 or more times in a year, regardless of the calendar month. The increased flows are due to dramatic increases in heavy precipitation events. A 5- or 6-inch rain in a watershed is now commonplace. Flash floods are now expected. The impact of these on our rivers are dramatic: banks that have been stable for many decades are suddenly scoured, felling scores of trees into the rivers, blocking passage, creating hazards for wildlife and people.
These unpredictable events—more frequent and stronger storms with higher precipitation in short periods of time that cause extreme floods and havoc in our rivers—are a direct result of climate change. We need to address it before our own inaction causes irreversible and permanent damage to some of the most valuable natural resources we have left, our rivers, the habitats in and along them, and the wild life that depends upon them. Among other things, we need federal legislation to reduce greenhouse gases that warm the atmosphere and make our climate less stable and storms more fierce. Among other things, it should incentivize the production and purchase of electric cars, help speed the conversion to solar, wind, and other alternative energy sources, discourage production of energy from coal and oil, and otherwise help implement the climate plans put forth by Biden and Sanders. Those plans are an excellent place to start.