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February 25, 2010

Agriculture and floods

As the spring thaw begins in many parts the country, flood season in the Midwest will soon be upon us. Communities in the Red River Valley and even St. Paul are already bracing for the worst. Are we experiencing more floods in this age of climate change? What role is agriculture playing? And what could be done to better adapt or reduce their effects? These are some of the issues looked at in the new book "A Watershed year: Anatomy of the Iowa Floods of 2008."

In June 2008, the rivers of Eastern Iowa rose rapidly, flooding farmland and displacing thousands of residents and hundreds of businesses in east-central Iowa and southeast Minnesota. While the book, edited by Cornelia Mutel, focuses on Iowa, it offers lessons for the whole Midwest Corn Belt, which stretches from Nebraska through Ohio.

Several of the chapters zero in on the role of the corn/soybean agricultural landscape (two-thirds of Iowa) in decreasing the region's ability to absorb water."It would be difficult to find two crops that do a worse job of handling Iowa's rainfall," write Laura Jackson and IATP Senior Fellow Dennis Keeney in a chapter on how perennial farming systems could better resist flooding. Perennial plant roots add to the organic matter of the soil, and that soil can absorb tremendous quantities of water without producing runoff into rivers and streams.

"Scientists studying the problems of surface and groundwater contamination, the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, and flooding have arrived at the same conclusion: we need to re-perennialize the landscape," write Jackson and Keeney.They argue for more cover crops, longer crop rotations and more grass-based farming integrated with livestock. They suggest policy reforms that would reward farmers for the proportion of precipitation landing on their field that stays on the farm for a significant time period, and other farmer incentives to replace row crops with perennials.

"As flood damages increase, the need for hydrological resilience grows more urgent," write Jackson and Keeney. "A re-perennialized agricultural landscape will still produce food but also will restore community values and ecosystem services that have been lost."

You can order the book here.

Ben Lilliston

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