2013 is the third year out of the last four that the Cannon River watershed has been hit by a major flood. These flood events are caused by intense rains dropping lots of water in a short time on ground that can't absorb it. These types of rain events aren't going to go away so we need to learn to live with them and manage for them. Sandbags and flood walls are band aids at the end of the line and, while they help some businesses, they aren't the long term solution.
We need storage for this water and ways for it to sink in or infiltrate into the ground so it doesn't run off the land as soon as it falls. A recent piece on KARE 11 said the runoff came from farm fields and that is partly correct. There is a lot that could be done on agricultural land like restoring wetlands, putting in shoreland buffers, installing controlled drainage, implementing significantly reduced tillage across the landscape, working cover crops into cropping systems, and moving away from the corn and soybean monocultures.
This increased rainfall can also carry more nutrients like nitrogen off of farmland. The big take home message for me in the recently released nitrogen study by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency was that we probably won't see more than a 30% reduction with a “business as usual” approach. Best management practices and more efficient nitrogen application are not going to be enough. Instead, we need a food systems change: consumers will have to have a direct impact on what farmers grow by demanding different products grown with less nitrogen application.
Urban residents need to do our part as well. Rain gardens, rain barrels and native plants instead of lawns will help hold water. Fewer hard surfaces and covers that increase infiltration are also needed. And, believe it or not, we can help through our food choices as they dictate what our hard working farmers grow. Lastly, we have to find places to reconnect the floodplain to the river so that there is room for the water to spread out when it needs to.
The floods are not just a problem for the people whose lives were affected by loss of home and property. They are a problem for our community and society that we need to deal with together.
Beth Kallestad is the Executive Director of the Canon River Watershed Partnership in Northfield, MN.