Posts Tagged ‘climate change’

Chasing Environmental Change

October 18, 2017

By Joannah Otis, for No Water No Life

Joannah is a Georgetown University sophomore studying Environmental Studies, Art History and Psychology. A member of the university’s Environmental Club, she enjoys spending her free time in N.J.’s Raritan River Basin, a NWNL case study watershed.  Joannah is a NWNL Researcher for Fall 2017.  Below is Part II of her analysis of our 2016 NWNL Survey.  Part I can be found here: A Green Education for the Younger Generation.

 

From the mid-to-late 1900’s, climate change and water-use issues began to appear more and more consistently in the popular media.  Yet, based on results of a 2016 NWNL Survey, working-age adults between the ages of 31 and 50 are surprisingly unaware of environmental disruptions in their own communities, even though the concept of climate change gained traction during the formative years of their lives. In 1975, the term “global warming” was introduced by American scientist Wallace Broecker. By 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established to assess the effects and dangers of emissions, water use, and pollution. Two years later, this panel released its initial Report detailing how greenhouse-gas emissions lead to increased average temperatures. Later IPCC Reports state that it is 95% likely that humans are causing global warming.

 

Jones_140316_CA_0484Refineries on the northern extension of the San Francisco Bay, California (2014)

 

Shortly thereafter, Al Gore’s 1992 book Earth in the Balance further exposed the general public to the threats human behavior was placing on biodiversity, water, soil and climate. He proposed a “Global Marshall Plan,” intended to eradicate poverty, protect the environment, and promote sustainable development through an Eco-Social Market Economy.1 The “Climategate” affair of 2009 stirred further public debate concerning wasteful human practices when hackers released some e-mails from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit.2  In spite of these decades of publicity on climate change and human effects on the planet, wasteful water use continues today.

Those between 31 to 50 however have been exposed to environmentally-friendly practices starting at a young age.  So perhaps that’s why they as a group are more likely to be frugal water users. The NWNL Survey revealed that nobody polled in this age group considered themselves wasteful with water. In fact, 30% claimed to be frugal water consumers vesus only 14% of the 18-30 year-old respondents. It is also notable that 28% of the youngest group in the survey, the under-18-year-olds, admitted to being wasteful. [See Part I of this Survey Analysis on the need for under-18-year-olds to become more aware of environmental issues, the need to reduce consumption, and their carbon footprints.]  Those in the over 50-year-old bracket were the least willing to alter their wasteful water practices. This information is reconcilable with the fact that the older generation did not grow up with encouragements to be environmentally friendly and thus are hesitant to alter their habits.

 

Jones_111026_LA_0547Clay water jug being filled from wall pipe, Atchafalaya Basin, Louisiana (2011)

 

At the same time, about 79% of those in the 31-50 age range never or infrequently recycle water. This survey response is somewhat tilted, given that the majority of people surveyed did not come from drought-afflicted areas. In states like California where water shortages are a perpetual part of everyday life, water recycling has become much more popular. Starting in 2015, the California Water Environment Association and other municipal water groups produced recycled water from community waste treatment plants  for free. Although not all recycled water is suitable for drinking, all recycled water can be used for landscaping and agricultural purposes.3  Going further, some extremely arid California communities, including San Diego, began recycling “black water,” which is processed from sewage that includes human waste, into drinking water beginning in 2011.4  (Once overcoming “the mental yuck factor,” those that drink this recycled water, including NWNL Director Alison Jones, say it’s delicious).   Such government water-recycling projects make it much easier for people to be more responsible water users.

 

Jones_140322_CA_3870Sign for non-potable reclaimed water, San Joaquin River Valley, California (2014)

 

While it is concerning that more than half  (58%) of 31-50 year-olds are unsure of what water changes are being pursued in their community, it is encouraging that a large percentage of them are individually willing to make water use changes. Of those surveyed in this age group, 73% were open to buying fewer “high-water-content” items. These items include leather, paper, cotton clothing and merchandise from drought-ridden areas. For example, producing just one pair of jeans takes about 1,800 gallons of water,5 while one sheet of paper demands almost three gallons.6

NWNL hopes more will be done to encourage these working-age adults, who say they are willing to put water-saving techniques into practice, to learn more about climate-change impacts on their community. A renewed emphasis on presenting reliable, factual information in the news and in social media will be important in promoting effective approaches to responsible water consumption practices.   

 

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

On “The Rim of Fire”

October 13, 2017

Essay and Photos by NWNL Director Alison M. Jones. 

FIVE NWNL EXPEDITIONS have focused on CA’s recent multi-year drought, ended by winter 2017’s heavy snows and rains.  I returned last week to report on any impacts from that drought – only to find drought is back already! Flying into Central California, I was stunned to see how arid this region is – again!   It doesn’t take California long to dry out, especially with Climate Change consequences!  This year, the state’s 2nd wettest winter was followed by its hottest summer. That combination on top of a 5-year accumulation of dead, droughty vegetation created this horrid tinderbox that is taking lives and destroying whole towns this week.

Jones_160929_CA_7297Sign warning of wildfire, in Kaweah River Valley, California, 2016

SINCE NWNL BEGAN IN 2007, our project has noted that wildfires degrade our rivers, streams, lakes and reservoirs.  Losing forests means losing their storage and filtering of water in tree roots for later release.  Forests also shade streams, creating cool habitats for fish, especially needed for spawning salmon and trout.

BUT, WE MISSED A 2007 ARTICLE noting high CO2 emissions from wildfires.  Today, on a California hilltop above the Pacific Ocean, I’m monitoring the upcoming weekend’s Santa Ana winds and heat in the dry canyons behind me. Listening to local weather, I learned that 2 days of these CA fires emitted more CO2 than CA cars do in a year.  Sadly, this worsens the global warming that intensifies hurricanes, sea level rise, droughts, high temperatures, local storms and yes, wildfires. Global warming is a vicious cycle we’ve created.

Jones_080816_BC_4159Forest fire smoke in the Kootenay Rockies, British Columbia, 2008

CALIFORNIA’S FIRE TSUNAMI rages on as I write, destroying lives and livelihoods.  Its explosive blanket of kindling was created by 5 years of drought, as well as high temperatures and increased building on fire-prone hills. Now, the sweep of damaging urban wildfires has been lowered from treetops to rooftops.  A NOAA analysis has connected these Oct 2017 CA fires to climate change, predicting that the state’s fire risks could quadruple by mid-century if CO2 emissions stay at current levels.

SINCE ARRIVING LAST WEEK, I’ve read much here in CA on how climate change and water-related consequences relate to wildfires. This year’s Whittier Fire above Lake Cachuma left its drainage slopes bare and vulnerable to massive erosion by future rains.  Soil sliding into this reservoir will degrade water quality and decrease storage capacity for Santa Barbara’s main source of water. (Santa Barbara Independent, Sept 28-Oct 5, 2017, p 12). Also at peril from ravages of fire and landslides are municipal water infrastructure and distribution systems.

Jones_140207_CA_9966Lake Cachuma reservoir at 39% capacity from 3-year drought, 2014

A MORE GLOBAL FOCUS on this topic by Mongobay expands the impacts of wildfires beyond CA.  Its weekly newsletter states that “forest degradation has turned the Amazon from carbon sink to carbon source; while globally, humanity’s carbon emissions are worsening drought and fires. Brazil’s rapid Amazon development deepens the problem. Researchers warn of mega-fires that could be coming, unless trends are reversed.”

TODAY, INDIVIDUALLY WE CAN ONLY HOPE for the best for Californians and their dramatically beautiful state.  NWNL will keep raising awareness of the nexus of water-related issues, climate change and wildfires.  Meanwhile, it’s time to reduce our individual CO2 footprints. We can offset our role in CO2 emissions by supporting climate-change research groups like TerraPass. For the record, all NWNL expedition travel and in-office energy consumption have been offset since we began in 2007.

Jones_140207_CA_9707Dry stream bed of the Santa Ynez River, California, 2014

TOMORROW, IT’S TIME TO DEMAND a much deeper commitment from our government to use every effort possible to stop wildfires, sea level rise, deadly heat waves, Category 5 hurricanes….  It’s simple, if we’ll look ahead, rather than gaze at today’s profit margins.  Let’s not find ourselves mourning that we’ve stolen our youth’s future. Promoting ignorance with a myopic focus on today’s profits for a few will curse the future of all of us, even more than it has this month in Houston, Florida’’s Keys, The U. S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and now California.

Jones_150824_CA_6365Santa Ynez River, low stream bed due to 3-year drought, 2015

 

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

Drought: A Photo Essay

September 26, 2017

From 2014 until the beginning of 2017  California suffered through a major drought. It was a hot topic in the news, and NWNL conducted five Spotlight Expeditions to document and bring attention to that drought and its significance.  But what exactly is a drought? What causes droughts?  What are the effects of droughts? What does a drought look like?

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Boat launch, Kinbasket Lake Reservoir, BC, Canada. 2007

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Kinbasket Lake Reservoir, BC, Canada. 2007

Basicplanet.com defines a drought as a “lengthy period of time, stretching months or even years in which time land has a decrease in water supply.” Droughts usually occur when rain doesn’t fall often enough during prolonged periods of warmer temperatures, causing high pressure winds and and reduced water content.

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Aerial  of dry river bed, Skeleton Coast National Park, Namibia. 2006

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El Molo Swamp in Mau Forest during Kenya drought of 2009

Human activity can also be the cause of drought. Deforestation, farming, excess irrigation and erosion can lead to drought. Climate change also creates drought. Rises in average global temperatures greatly effect the possibility of drought, by reducing water content in the air.

Jones_150813_CA_4202Rio Hondo River, a tributary of Los Angeles River, California. 2015

Jones_140207_CA_9687Dried up succulent in the Santa Ynez Valley, California. 2014

There are many more affects of drought than most people realize. The most obvious affect is the shortage of water. Because of this, crops and animals will die. Droughts lead to malnutrition, dehydration and deadly famines. Wildfires and dust storms are much more probable and common effects. Industries that rely on water are forced to cutback, thus forcing people into unemployment. Wars have occurred due to droughts.

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USA: California, Kettleman City, sign about effects of drought and no waterSigns posted during the California Drought,  2014 – 2016.

 

Posted by Sarah Kearns, NWNL Project Manager.

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

Glaciers: A Photo Essay

September 19, 2017

Edit (9/27/17): Since publishing this blog, the Washington Post reported the calving (or splitting) of a key Antarctic glacier, the Pine Island Glacier.  The article states, “the single glacier alone contains 1.7 feet of potential global sea level rise and is thought to be in a process of unstable, ongoing retreat.”  To learn more about how climate change contributed to this calving, and what the affects will be, read the article here.

 

“The alarming rate of glacial shrinkage worldwide threatens our current way of life, from biodiversity to tourism, hydropower to clean water supply.” (climatenewsnetwork.net)

During and in between NWNL’s dozens of expeditions to its six case-study watersheds, we have explored the value and current condition of glaciers on three continents, since they are a critical source of freshwater.  NWNL visited the Columbia Icefields of Alberta, Canada in 2007; Argentine glaciers in 2003 and 2005; and Rebman Glacier on the summit of Tanzania’s Mt Kilimanjaro in 2003.   We have witnessed the effect of climate change on glaciers. The melting of glaciers will affect  all forms of water resources for human and wildlife communities.  Just as upstream nutrients and pollutants travel downstream, “the loss of mountain ice creates problems for the people who live downstream.” Glacial loss must be thought of as just as important in the climate-change discussion as flooding and drought have become.

 

Jones_030809_TZ_0745Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro via the Machame Route. Tanzania, East Africa. (2003)

 

Jones_050402_ARG_0155Hole in ice of Lake Viedma Glacier in South Patagonia’s Glacier National Park, Argentina. (2005)

 

Jones_070609_ALB_2357Sign marking the former edge of the glacier. Columbia Icefields, Alberta, Canada. (2007)

 

ARG SC LVgla 059DA.tifLake Viedma Glacier at Glaciers National Park in Southern Patagonia, Argentina. (2005)

 

Canada: Alberta, Columbia Icefields Center Bus Tour, Athabasca GlacierAthabasca Glacier in Columbia Icefields. Alberta, Canada. (2007)

 

ARG SC Azul 004DA.tifGlacier melting and pouring into Blue Lake in the Andes Mountains. Southern Patagonia, Argentina. (2005)

 

Posted by Sarah Kearns, NWNL Project Manager.

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

 

Floods: A Photo Essay

September 11, 2017

In honor of those devastated by the recent flooding all over the world, including Texas and Florida in the United States, the Caribbean, Africa and across Southeast Asia, NWNL takes a look at photos from our archives of flooding in our case study watersheds.

Columbia River Basin

Jones_070607_BCa_0058In British Columbia, Columbia River flooding from melting snow pack and storms, threatens barns and farmlands.  (2007)

Jones_070607_BC_1989Barn and truck underwater in British Columbia from Columbia River flooding due to melting snow pack and storms.  (2007)

 

Mississippi River Basin

MO-STG-411Mississippi River flood of 1993, St Genevieve, Missouri.

USA:  Missouri, West Alton, road flooded in the Mississippi River flood of 1993Road flooded in West Alton, Missouri during the Mississippi River flood of 1993.

 

Raritan River Basin

Jones_110311_NJ_7383 A submerged park bench during the spring floods in Clinton, New Jersey, part of the South Branch of the Raritan River Basin. (2011)

Jones_110311_NJ_7451 Hamden Road flooded near Melick’s bridge in Clinton, New Jersey, part of the South Branch of the Raritan River Basin. (2011)

 

Omo River Basin

Jones_070919_ET_0261_MDassenech village, located on the Omo Delta in Ethiopia, flooded by the Omo River and polluted by livestock effluent. (2007)

Jones_070919_ET_0289_MGranary hut built on stilts on a flooded plain in the Dassenech village in Ethiopia. (2007)

 

Posted by Sarah Kearns, NWNL Project Manager.

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

On Combating Drought and Desertification

June 16, 2017

Today is “World Day for Combating Drought and Desertification.”  Ironically, today I am on a NWNL expedition in Nebraska atop the northeastern edge of the Ogallala Aquifer, which spans and supplies water to 8 states, all the way down to Texas.  The farmers I’ve talked to here are all aware of this observance.  After all, Nebraska was one of six of those same states so heavily impacted by the severe Dustbowl drought in the “Dirty Thirties.”  While these “black blizzards” caused terrible casualties and human displacement, much was learned about the importance of dry-land and no-till farming, planting windbreaks and the value of deep-rooted prairie grasses – all of which prevent wind erosion of these sandy “loess” soils.  During the Dustbowl, more than 3/4 of the topsoil was blown away in some regions.  Thanks to indomitable “Great Plains” human spirit, there has been recovery, albeit at the expense of large population declines, and continuing slim profit margins, provoking yearly concern.  The lesson still to be considered today is how we can mitigate extreme weather patterns.  Several means come to mind: irrigation and farming technologies, drought-tolerant crops, reduced consumption, reduction of fossil fuels that contribute to climate change, and paying attention to the lessons of history.

THE ROLE OF WATER IN HUMAN HISTORY:

For how long have our species worried about water availability?   For eons, civilizations settled on the planet’s great rivers and have flourished. I think of the Nile and its pyramids; the Tiber and its Roman Forum; and the Ganges and its Taj Mahal. There were also great civilizations that are believed to have literally dried up. I think of the Mississippian, Anasazi, and Incan cultures. Their power was decimated by their wanton consumption of natural resources, which intertwined with intense droughts and resulting food scarcity.
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Taj Mahal next to the Yamuna River, India. Photo by Alison M. Jones. NM-CCK-210A os.tif

Anasazi ruin ‘Chetro Ketl’ in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. Photo by Alison M. Jones.

THE ROLE OF WATER IN THE US WEST

Recently, David Beillo reviewed David Owen’s Where the Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River. He began his article by saying, “The waterways of the [U.S.] west now exist as monuments to an ambitious desert civilization. Across this vast region of America, few, if any, rivers flow without hosting one or more dams, concrete channels, diversions or other human-made ‘improvements’ that allow people and farming to flourish in this dry country.”

Nevada: Boulder City, Hoover Dam,

Hoover Dam, Boulder City, Nevada. Photo by Alison M. Jones.

Owen’s book follows a stream of well-known authors who’ve analyzed the issue of water availability in the desert – from Wallace Stegner’s many books to Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert (where did my well-worn copy of that classic go??) to John Fleck’s recent book on the Colorado River, Water is for Fighting Over. In describing the changing American West, Stegner muses on John Muir’s approach: “Instead of thinking what men did to the mountains, he kept his mind on what the mountains did to men.” A riverine parallel could be: consider what men have done to rivers in order to address what lack of rivers could do to men. Stegner succinctly states: “The West’s ultimate unity: aridity.”

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Parker Dam, hydrodam across the Colorado River that siphons water from Colorado Aqueduct to Los Angeles. Photo by Alison M. Jones.

In The Sound of Mountain Water: The Changing American West, Stegner describes the Cowboy Country – much of which supplies critical bounties of food and livestock – as a “land of little rain and big consequences.” The U.S. West is an extravagantly endowed region, but has one critical deficiency – water. Without water, watersheds, timber and crops are all vulnerable. Stegner mused, “There have been man-made deserts before this in the world’s history. The West could be one of those.” NWNL undertook five “Spotlight” expeditions to document the just-ended, six-year California Drought, including ten August days in the Mohave Desert when nights never cooled down below 108 degrees. Experiencing such extreme heat seemed to be possible preparation for what might be the norm in the future for larger areas than the deserts we now know, given climate change predictions.

Jones_140322_CA_3790California Aquaduct, seen from levee road, in San Joaquin River Valley, California. Photo by Alison M. Jones. 

Rising populations are using many straws to pull from that finite source of water called the Colorado River. It was named the Red River because of the color of the soil it carries, but perhaps we should also consider its color being derived from the blood of dying ecosystems and water-dependent livelihoods and communities. The death toll that many fear is exacerbated by the increasing droughts seemingly induced by climate change.

DESERTIFICATION IN AFRICA

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Aerial view of deforestation of Mau Forest, Kenya. Photo by Alison M. Jones.

Africa is also haunted by the specter of drought and desertification. The late Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to stem deforestation and resulting desertification by gathering legions of women to plant saplings across Kenya. No forests, no water, no life, no peace – as Ms. Maathai told NWNL after an appearance at NYC’s Cooper Union. But forests continue to disappear across Africa to be replaced by fields of maize to feed a growing number of mouths. Politics also interferes with efforts to protect Africa’s precious water towers, like Mt Kenya’s slopes and the Mara River’s Mau Forest headwaters.

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Indigenous cedar stump. Deforestation of Mau Forest, Kenya. Photo by Alison M. Jones.Jones_120124_K_5375

Truck full of cut logs. Deforestation of Mau Forest, Kenya. Photo by Alison M. Jones. 

THE FUTURE

In the face of today’s increasing droughts and deforestation, change is needed and is possible. But, given the human species’ tendency to short-termism, is it probable? Counter that tendency, our species also has often risen to crises — whether they were created by uncontrollable forces or by ourselves. Our inventiveness can overcome our inertia with leadership from grassroots and legislative actions. We certainly possess the ability to fight the specter of water scarcity.

We just need the will to change behavior and habits in order to stop deforestation, desertification and droughts. We need the will to reduce unnecessary consumption. We need the will to invest in research and technology. We need the will to respect nature’s needs and consider the long-term impacts of our human footprint.

 

 

 

Celebrating World Wildlife Day!

March 3, 2017

By Christina Belasco

Today we celebrate World Wildlife Day. Acting to preserve our planet’s treasured biodiversity is more important now than ever. To honor our beloved creatures we share with you all today photos from our African and North American case study watersheds! We can never forget that these animals all depend on healthy, clean fresh water so we must protect our watersheds as well. Each animal, no matter how big or small, plays a critical role in the ecosystem and are all worthy of love and conservation. This reminds us all that no action we take in conservation is too small. We thank local environmental stewards everywhere for standing up for their ecosystems.

Africa:

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Kenya, Maasai Mara National Reserve. Elephants are a flagship species of the Maasai Mara Reserve. They are a key indicator species, and are in danger due to illegal poaching for their ivory.

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Tanzania, Lake Manyara National Park. An Olive Baboon (papio anubis) eats a kigelia nut in groundwater forest. The baboon’s greatest threats are habitat loss due to deforestation as well as human hunting.

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Kenya, Maasai Mara National Reserve. An Impala Herd grazes at sunset. Impala are an important food source for many predators in the African Savanna, and are a very adaptable species.

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Tanzania, Lake Manyara National Park. A Lioness is perched in an Acacia tree. Lionesses hunt for the pride. These predators of the Savanna are in danger because of habitat loss and poaching.

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Tanzania: Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The annual Wildebeest migration is one of the seven wonders of the natural world, when over 1.5 million Wildebeest trod in an enormous loop through Tanzania and Kenya.

North America:

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Columbia River Basin, Greater Yellowstone. The Buffalo was once the great icon of the heartland of the United States, and are sacred to the Native Americans of the plains who relied on Buffalo for centuries as their source of food, material, and ceremony. As the settlers came, the Buffalo was nearly hunted out of existence. Thanks to recent conservation efforts, especially in Yellowstone National Park, this giant creature is making a slow comeback.

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Washington, Columbia River Basin. Chinook Salmon are critical to river ecosystems in the Northwest. The single most damaging threat to the Salmon are dams, which block their ability to migrate downstream and into the ocean where they need to go to complete their life cycle.

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New Jersey, Mountainville (Raritan River Basin). Atlantis fritillary butterfly feeds on the bloom of a bush. Butterfly are not only beautiful, they help pollinate flowers and are a key indicator species.

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Louisiana, Atchafalaya Basin. The Alligator in the Atchafalaya Basin is a critical predator. It faces a multitude of threats including habitat loss, immense pollution, and human hunting.

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New Jersey, Upper Raritan River Basin. Honeybee populations all over the world are facing an enormous crisis due to pesticide spraying and climate change.

A Blind Eye to Flooding – No More Excuses

September 2, 2016

By Alison Jones, No Water No Life Director

NWNL sends our sympathies to those suffering from Hermine’s winds and rains. As this hurricane slashes its way north, we hope for the least amount of flood damage possible.

As 2012’s Superstorm Sandy and August’s Louisiana Floods showed, we have created a bad scenario along our waterways. Our approach to coastal development is probably as much to blame for flooding devastation as is the severe weather due to the warming of our atmosphere by climate change.

Ten days ago NWNL wrote a blog on the Louisiana flooding noting the critical need for green infrastructure in order to mitigate storm impacts. We also urged the adaptation of alternative energies to fossil fuels.

Andrew Revkin, renowned science and environmental journalist, retweeted our blog, saying:   “Super No Water No Life post on hazards with growth in a soggy state.”  Today Revkin’s  New York Times Dot Earth blog details how we’ve lost awareness of the reality and the raison d’etre of floodplains and wetlands.

Our coastlands and riverine corridors are meant to filter and absorb both floodwaters and their nutrients.  They are meant to be nutrient-rich ecosystems for flora and fauna, that in turn support human needs.   The water’s edge was never meant to be a platform for tipi’s, trailers, cottages or mansions.

Indigenous builders respected Nature’s rhythms and whims. Their homes were simply-built and often mobile. If destroyed, their ruin did not pollute land or water with masses of chemical or plastic debris. The French, who settled in Creole communities up and down the Lower Mississippi River 200 years ago, also paid attention to the realities of flooding rivers and deltas. They knew better than to rebuild time and time again in flood paths.

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Missouri: St Genevieve, the Creole Green Tree Tavern, surviving Mississippi River Flood of 1993.

This summer NWNL cruised New Jersey’s Sandy Hook inland waterway – the lovely Shrewsbury and Navasink Rivers. It was shocking to see that this spit of land, like so many, has been completely re-built since Sandy’s whiplash destruction.

Those of us on this NY/NJ Baykeeper cruise cringed to think what would happen when the lapping waters of August next jumped over relatively minimal breakwaters and seawalls. We are cringing again this weekend. If not this weekend, when?

A Nameless Louisiana Flood: Tragedy and Case Study

August 22, 2016

By Alison M. Jones

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No Water No Life’s thoughts are with all who’ve lost so much in Louisiana, particularly in eastern Baton Rouge. In our 5 watershed expeditions in the Lower Mississippi River Basin, we have learned much about flooding. This essay analyzes the history, causes and devastating effects of high-water events in Louisiana, and all floodplain areas. We believe the solutions involve us all.

FLOODPLAINS  Approximately 1/6th of Louisiana’s acreage is bayous, lakes, swamps and rivers. Southern Louisiana is a floodplain. As one sign says, “It’s called a floodplain because it’s plain that it floods.” It is perfect habitat for turtles, waterfowl and bald cypress trees.

Periodically, a rain-swollen Mississippi River or hurricanes bring floods. This month’s catastrophe was due to an “inland, sheared tropical depression.” Those most impacted  are not turtles, waterfowl or swamp cypress. They are humans.

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A RIVER TOWN  Baton Rouge, the first bluff north of the Mississippi River Delta, was settled circa 1,200-6,000 BC.  The Native American Mississippian  hunter-gatherers used the river and this flood-safe bluff to trade throughout the Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys. Europeans followed and established Baton Rouge in 1699. Since then, families, communities and industries on and around the bluff have both thrived and suffered because of water.

The Mississippi River has driven Baton Rouge’s economy since its busy steamboat days. River transport made Baton Rouge a major U.S. industrial and petro-chemical center. The Port of Greater Baton Rouge is the 10th largest port in shipped tonnage. Now this port is handling the new Panamax ships to carry even greater amounts of grain, crude oil, cars and containers.

But with these benefits of the river – and the rains that feed it – come floods. The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 affected 630,000 people. Herbert Hoover called it the “greatest peacetime calamity” in U.S. history. More devastating floods occurred in 1973, 1983 and 2011. The May 1995 Louisiana Flood dumped up to 20” of rain, causing over $3.1 million in damages. Each time, personal and economic damage has affected Louisiana and the U.S.

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SOGGY FOUNDATIONS and POOR PLANNING   For centuries, floods have swept away buildings, businesses, crops, and human lives. Whether a columned plantation or colorful trailer, the loss of a home entails the loss of investments, lifestyles and irreplaceable intangibles from family photos and holiday décor to BBQ patio moments.

Some say that everyone lives in a flood zone. Perhaps. But certainly flooding impacts are spreading wider. TV commentators of this 2016 Louisiana flood simply say the water has nowhere to go. Why?  New land development has created greater floods since construction has diverted natural runoff paths. As economies and populations grew, housing booms focused more on needs than risks. Developers covered wetlands and built on flood plains. Thus, urban and suburban development extended flooding beyond designated zones on FEMA maps.

Could that have been stopped? In the 1990’s and 2000’s Baton Rouge became one of the fastest-growing cities in the South. From 2000 to 2010 Baton Rouge’s population grew by about 33%. Ironically, in 2005 Hurricane Katrina flood refugees from New Orleans fled north, further causing Baton Rouge’s population to surge.

In hindsight, zoning regulations should have been stricter forty or fifty years ago. Wetlands should have been protected. Sprawl should have been addressed and discouraged.  These measures can still be instituted; and rebuilding on soggy ground can still be regulated.

FACING THE WEATHER  How can southern Louisiana and other low-lying regions mitigate, if not protect, impacts of future floods? Engineers, government, low-lying communities and all of us must face predictions of continued record-breaking rainfalls and increasingly high moisture levels in our atmosphere. Such extreme weather events used to be rare, often over 500 years apart. But since last May, eight similar, flood-producing heavy rainstorms have occurred in the U.S., according to meteorologist Eric Holthaus. If indeed this is a “classic signal of climate change, as claimed by Climate Nexus, we must implement immediate remedies.

PREVENTION  Possible solutions are big and small in scope. They can come from top-down and bottom-up efforts. We hear on TV that homes should be rebuilt on higher foundations. The reality is they should be rebuilt elsewhere. That’s the big solution: a complex and expensive remedy needing brave leadership and community commitment. It has been done. After severe floods in 2007 and 2008, Gays Mills, Wisconsin, is now moving its residences and commerce uphill from the Kickapoo River Floodplain. But Gays Mills is a much smaller community than eastern Baton Rouge, and it has taken almost a decade to accomplish and fund.

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MITIGATION  Louisiana and other floodplains can take steps smaller than relocation that will at least mitigate flooding effects. Small acts of sustainability really can lessen the impacts of flooding.

–Roads and parking areas can have porous surfaces, allowing water to seep through.

–Zoning can limit impermeable surfaces for renovated and new development.

–More trees can be planted so their deep roots can absorb excess waters.

–Rain gardens, bio-swales and other green elements can be implemented in residential, commercial, industrial and institutional settings to help absorb and divert run-off.

–Artificial wetlands can be built and existing wetlands saved so nature can again fulfill its role of storing floodwaters.

–Flood maps can be updated for today’s extreme weather.

These mitigations apply all across the country beyond already known flood regions! While global warming may seem like a slow climb up an endless ladder, its effects periodically pull that ladder right out from under us. Some of those moments have names like Katrina, Sandy and Irene. Some events are nameless but just as devastating, as Louisiana now knows.

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FOSSIL FUELS AND FLOODS   Beyond community-based mitigation, there is one major remedy that involves us all. Industrial emissions from across the globe – and even from Baton Rouge plants on the Mississippi River – contribute to climate disruption and the intensification of storms such as Louisiana’s 32-inch downpour this month. Ironically, Louisiana is a state known for its oil and gas industries – and for its floods. Fossil fuels and floods are co-joined in Louisiana, creating a cause-and-effect cycle.

Beyond Louisiana though, our national dependence on fossil fuels makes all of us partly responsible for the losses in Baton Rouge’s flood this summer. Our heavy use of cars and often-excessive consumption contribute to carbon emissions that indiscriminately hurt us all. We can cut back to essentials! Also you can join NWNL in following and sharing news of clean-energy technologies, including “Bladeless Wind Turbines” and solar highways producing crystal-powered energy.

OUR FUTURE   Today, we can all help Louisiana residents with gifts to Red Cross or LEAN – Louisiana Environmental Action Network, a local Baton Rouge organization NWNL has worked with.

Just as importantly, both today and tomorrow, we can all proactively support new, sustainable energy resources.  This will improve the future of existing flood-prone communities from Baton Rouge to Houston; from St Louis to Miami; West Virginia to South Carolina and worldwide.

By supporting measures to stop building in floodplains and efforts to lessen weather-related disasters, we say to Baton Rouge residents that we are one with them – and their children.

 

 

2016 Flooding in Vicksburg and a NWNL 2014 Interview with US Army Corps of Engineers

January 10, 2016

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THIS WEEK’s RECORD-BREAKING MISSISSIPPI RIVER FLOOD

This winter’s costly Mississippi River Flood is now predicted to crest at Vicksburg on Friday Jan 15 at approximately 52 feet – 9 feet above the USGS official flood level.  The home of the US Army Corps of Engineers, Vicksburg has known great changes in its river hydrology.  In 1876, the Mississippi took a dramatic shortcut across DeSoto Point, per this map illustration No Water no Life photographed on its 2014 Lower Mississippi River expedition.  Let’s hope there is no damage this winter during this current, historic flood.  And let’s hope there are no further rains between now and the time the crest reaches New Orleans.

FLOOD HISTORY of VICKSBURG (since the Civil War)

In 1876:  The Mississippi River course changed and shifted west, leaving Vicksburg without any riverfront.  Thus the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers diverted the Yazoo River to the old riverbed.  This forced the creation of what is now the Yazoo Diversion Canal, where today’s modern Vicksburg port is located.

Flood of 1927:  The Upper Mississippi and Ohio Valleys experienced well-above-average rainfall in the fall of 1926.  The rain kept coming.  By January 1927 nearly all of the Mississippi River and its tributaries were above flood stage.  In April 1927, the levees began to fail causing massive areas to flood.  In all the Mississippi River breached the levee in 145 places, flooding 27,000 square miles.  Hundreds of thousands of people were homeless and were unable to return to their property until the waters receded, nearly 8 months after the rains began.

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The 1927 flood inundated 27,000 square miles along the lower reaches of the Mississippi River, then populated by more than 900,000 people.  For months in spring and summer of 1927, water covered the lower Mississippi River floodplain and tributaries.  It turned nearly all the cotton fields into a lake of tens of thousands of square miles.

Hundreds of thousands of people were impacted by floods that sent torrents of dirty water into their towns and homes, especially in African American communities.  Many Vicksburg families left for northern cities, such as St. Louis, Chicago and Detroit.  This urban migration drastically reduced the labor class and desperate landowners created forced-work camps to keep their farms going.

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The US Government determined that such a disaster should never be repeated.  The US Army Corps of Engineers [henceforth, USACE] since has put in place plans, designs and infrastructure to mitigate such disasters.

TALKING WITH THE USACE IN VICKSBURG, SEPT. 2014

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Per a No Water No Life USACE interview with Kent Parrish, Noah Vroman and Tommy Hengst, there seems to be reason to be optimistic this month as floodwaters again race and rage through the Lower Mississippi Valley.  Certainly greater riverside development means protection is even more critical, and thankfully it comes at a time when the USACE understands the need for more coordination with water interests.

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As the strength and frequency of storms has increased, the terminology of the Corps has been changed to decrease the level of expectations.  The USACE claim of providing “Flood protection” has now been reduced to insuring “Flood Risk Reduction.”  As well, there are new rules for new types of floods, such as this historically high and unusual winter flood.

The USACE states its approach to regional dam and levee safety has become more rigorous as aged infrastructure poses large maintenance challenges.  Both technological and visual inspections are now used to determine needed strengthening.

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Our two-hour interview yielded journal notations citing impressive rigor by the USACE to adapt to changing demands in the face of changing weather events.  Those interviewed also expressed the determination by the USACE to never become slipshod in its maintenance responsibility.

The USACE of Engineers will certainly be busy this month and for a while to come, assessing their preparations for extreme events and the impacts of such unprecedented pressure on their infrastructure from St Louis, past Cairo where the Ohio River enters the Mississippi, and down to Memphis, Vicksburg, Natchez, Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

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Blog by Alison M. Jones, Director of NWNL

[Source of images and information:  The Lower Mississippi River Museum and Interpretive Site, Vicksburg]

 

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