The High Price of Paving Paradise

Floods in Kentucky - Photo courtesy Flickr CC License

Care of Creation, my organization, does a lot of work teaching people in Kenya and other East African countries about the dangers of destroying forests.  God gave us trees for good reason:  In terms of hydrology (water cycles), trees are essential.  They are like the columns holding up the roof of a building – lose the trees, the whole system falls apart.  It turns out that something very similar is going on in the Mississippi River watershed of middle America.  We’re a richer country – but it appears that mere wealth can’t stop a flood.  When we human beings carelessly destroy vital parts of the world God gave us to live in, it doesn’t seem to matter whether we’re living in a village in Kenya or on a farm in Missouri.

Lost in the blizzard of headlines over the last week – tornadoes, weddings, the death of a terrorist – is the developing  flood situation in the Mississippi River valley.  The few stories that we’ve seen have focused on what one commentator called a solomonic dilemma:  Whether to save a small, struggling riverside city (Cairo, Illinois) or hundreds of thousands of acres of the country’s best farmland in Missouri.  That case has been all the way to the US Supreme Court in the last 48 hours, with the result that last night the Corps blasted two miles of levees at Bird’s Point, just south of Cairo in order to reduce the pressure on that community’s flood defenses.  As of this writing, the river has receded by a foot – the Corps hopes that they’ll see three more feet of decline in the next couple of days.

Of course, that’s only one city, and the Gulf of Mexico is a long way away.  Look for a lot more excitement on ‘Old Man River’ before it’s over:  This may take a month or more to play out.  But to give you a taste of what’s to come, here are some of the headlines today from Google News (search on ‘Mississippi River Flooding’):

Ohio River Sets New Record, Mississippi Waters Still Rising

Bloomberg - Brian K. Sullivan – ‎4 hours ago‎

The 6- to 10-day outlook from Commodity Weather Group LLC calls for below-normal rain in the southern US, including the Mississippi River valley. “These areas will be drier over the next 10 days, helping to ease the severity of flooding a bit for

Isle of Capri Casino Hotel in Lula closed due to Miss. River flooding

Today’s THV - Amanda Terrebonne – ‎15 hours ago‎

(KTHV) — The Isle of Capri Casino Hotel announced Monday that as of 3 am central time on Tuesday, May 3, the casino will be closed temporarily until flood waters recede. “As the Mississippi River continues to rise access to our property has been

Water reaches Tiptonville

State Gazette - ‎4 hours ago‎

Lake County, as well as other counties, is also experiencing rising water levels, both from the Mississippi river and rainwater. Lake County Mayor Macie Roberson stated the northern part of Tiptonville has begun flooding and almost 50 residences have

As an aside, that last story may be the most important one in the list.  I’ve never heard of Tiptonville (it’s in western Kentucky), nor Lake County, nor Mayor Roberson.  Nor have you (unless this blog has a bigger reach than I expect).    But Tiptonville is a special place for all of the folks who live there, and who are heading into their own slow-motion version of what the tornado victims across the south experienced last week.   We measure disasters with numbers, but the reality is that every disaster is a collection of hundreds, thousands of individual human stories.  It’s people who will suffer in all of these events.

So what’s to be done?  There is not much you can do about tornadoes or earthquakes.  While there are suspicions that a warmer world may lead to more and stronger tornadoes, it appears that the link between climate change and tornadic activity isn’t there yet.   Like earthquakes, tornadoes are part of God’s world – we’ve got to learn to live with them.

Floods are a bit different.  In most places, the natural world doesn’t have drip irrigation.  Our water is delivered in batches.  When it rains, there will almost always be more than we need for the moment – sometimes so much more that we have a flood.  And then it will be dry, sometimes for a very long time.  In this sense, floods are part of the system by which the natural world runs.  And in fact, throughout most of history, floods would have been welcomed as nature’s way of restoring depleted soil with a fresh new layer of silt.

Care of Creation’s project area in Kenya comes to mind as an example of how a normal hydrological system should work.  In this region of East Africa, farmers have long counted on two rainy periods in the year:  The “long rains” come about now and last for six weeks or so.  The “short rains” come in November.  In between, hardly a drop falls from the sky.  In normal years, in normal times, this wasn’t a problem.  God’s creation and human beings had all adapted to this rainfall pattern:  During the brief, intense rainy periods,  the mountain forests acted like sponges, soaking up the rain when it came, and gradually releasing it into streams and rivers over the entire dry season.  Many mountain streams would flow year round, even during the months with no rain.

This system has been severely disrupted – almost destroyed – in East Africa.  Vast stretches of forest have been removed for firewood, charcoal, or to make room for farmland, and the result has been completely predictable:  Erratic rainfall (made worse by global climate change), floods when it does rain, contributing to massive erosion, and then droughts when it doesn’t.  I have personally stood with Kenyans who showed me a dry stream bed that used to flow year round when they were children.  The important lesson:  It is not God who dried up the streams.

We have a tendency to lecture people in countries like Kenya about how dangerous it can be to destroy the natural systems God has provided.  I give some of these talks myself.  Such lectures aren’t misplaced.  People in these countries tend to live closer to the edge than do those in, say, middle America, and when your country’s water supply is fragile anyway, destroying the forests that provide that supply is not ever a good idea.

All of this makes the following Google News entry quite interesting:

Mississippi Floods Can Be Restrained With Natural Defenses

NatGeo News Watch (blog) - Sandra Postel – ‎4 hours ago‎

As riverboat casinos close along the lower Mississippi River as a precaution against disastrous flooding, another form of river gambling is coming under the spotlight — the bet that levees will be able to safeguard cities and farms from the rising

Take a minute and click through to read the story.  It turns out that here in the US we are doing with our natural wetlands what Kenyans have been doing with their forests:

Over the last three-quarters of a century, while engineers were building hundreds of miles of flood-control structures along the river’s banks, the water-holding wetlands in the Mississippi watershed were being drained and filled to make room for more farms and homes. Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri and Ohio have each lost more than 85 percent of their wetlands.  Minnesota, where the Mississippi originates, has lost a whopping 9.3 million acres of wetlands, 62 percent of its pre-industrial total. All together, eight states of the upper Mississippi basin have lost 35 million acres of wetlands, an area the size of Illinois.

Those wetlands worked like a giant sponge: they absorbed rainwater and then released it slowly to nearby streams or the groundwater below. In this way, they mitigated floods and made the job of levees that much easier. But with these natural protections largely gone, levees have been left to do all the work.

So… we could say, with the Kenyan ladies of the cartoon, ‘God, why have you let these floods destroy our homes (again)?’ while looking out at acres of mall parking lots where wetlands used to be.  I think we’d get the same answer.

It’s not God’s fault.

It would appear that when we “pave paradise to put up a parking lot”, there are consequences.