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Farm battles flood... again... and again...and five times more after that

Joe Riniker's shoes sloshed.

Water seeped through his soles, and as the farmer paced, puddles formed.

"It won't be the last time," he said.

While the flood outside flaunted its power, the farmer and his wife waited.

"All you can do is wonder, 'How far will it come this time?'" Judy Riniker said.

Meanwhile, waves lapped at their doorstep.

Friday the 13th delivered despair last June.

The nation watched as the Cedar River crested almost 20 feet above flood level and left 10 square miles of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, under water.

According to National Public Radio, floodwaters destroyed more than 5,000 homes in southeast Iowa alone, and Gov. Chet Culver declared 83 of Iowa's 99 counties disaster areas.

Yet Dubuque remained relatively dry.

While the Mississippi surged to 20.5 feet -- 3 feet above official flood level -- the floodwalls stood strong, saving the city from tragedy.

Miles away from the Mississippi, the Rinikers waded in the waters that had forced them to evacuate their cattle and leave their home at Mother Nature's mercy.

While state officials asked how the flood could have happened, Joe Riniker gave his own answers.

"Don't tell me it's not all this new development," he said. "I know better."

Flooded 7 times

In the past nine years, the Rinikers' farm has been flooded seven times.

The proof is in the timing, Joe Riniker said.

Just before the flooding began in earnest, the Asbury Shopping Plaza was built only a few miles uphill. To top that off, the city repaired a bridge nearby, which Joe Riniker said effectively built a barrier to bounce water back onto his fields.

City officials say development organizations are required to build earthen basins and detention systems and that protocol was followed in the case of the Asbury Shopping Plaza.

But the Rinikers' problems raise interesting questions in the aftermath of such severe flooding, environmental officials say.

More rain or altered landscape?

Eric Schmechel works as Upper Catfish Creek Watershed Coordinator with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

"There is so much research going on right now as to what could be causing this flooding," he said. "Is it raining more? Is it raining harder? Is it the development?"

The debate basically centers on two questions, he said. Is Iowa getting more rain? Or have residents altered the landscape so much that the area is prone to flooding?

With these discussions come questions regarding climate change and environmental stewardship.

"I think water has become a much bigger topic because of events like last year," he said. "Iowans have now seen families without homes. They have seen what floods cost people financially. They've seen what water can do, and they're starting to put two and two together."

Schmechel cites one study that indicates it is not raining for more days during the year, but that rainfalls are pouring more precipitation in the set amount of time.

"Right now, there are not concrete answers," he said. "But it has become a much bigger topic."

Another buzzword is runoff, Schmechel said. When developers build parking lots, roads or other concrete spaces, water that once could sink into the soil no longer can. Now, it rolls off the pavement and overloads natural basins. And the cycle continues, as the water keeps looking for a place to go.

"We have to start doing things differently," Schmechel said. "We need to start taking stormwater seriously, or it is going to happen again."

Dubuque priorities
Dubuque took the flooding issue seriously long, long ago.

According to street and sewer maintenance supervisor John Klostermann, the city of Dubuque began thinking of the future back in 1965.

Shortly after, city workers constructed a floodwall that stretches 6.2 miles. A combination of cement and earth, the system lets the city divert excess water to previously designated retention spots.

"The system works two ways," Klostermann said. "We can stop water from flowing into the Mississippi, and we can divert river water away, too."

Twice a year the system is inspected by the city, and the Corps of Engineers also evaluates the wall.

"We have a tendency here in Dubuque to feel secure with our floodwall because it has been tested and proven year after year, but last year reminded us of what could happen if there was a breech," he said.

The floodwall can keep the city safe up to 32 feet. At its highest point, the river crested at 26.8 feet in 1965.

"This is always a priority," Klostermann said. "It's always been on our mind. What the flooding did this last year was bring more attention to the citizens of Dubuque. And I think we can all want to say hats off to the people who had the foresight to put in the floodwalls. We enjoyed that protection this year."

Calling for change
Protection remains ever important in light of last year's floods.

The National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Services said that last summer six states saw flooding that killed 24 people, injured 148 and caused more than $1.5 billion in damages to Iowa alone.
But that cost could have been less, said the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. The organization estimated that it would take about $40 million to adequately repair waterways, terraces, levees and other conservation methods that would prevent major flooding.

Additionally, the group recommends that farmers consider practices that would minimally disrupt the ground, such as reduced tillage, longer crop rotations and stream bank stabilization.

Joe Riniker agrees the methods are sound.

But it will take more than just his individual efforts to save his land. Instead, he said, it is the farmers across the road, the business owners up the way and the homeowners along the river's banks.

Everybody has to help, he said.

"There has to be a change," he said.

(Photo Credit: http://www.jimedwardsford.com/)