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Q&A: Controlling water in the wake of floods

On Thursday, April 7, Connie Mutel, historian of science and engineering at the University of Iowa’s Hydroscience and Engineering Institute, delivered the convocation “Water In Iowa: From Gift to Curse and Back Again.” Mutel is an author of two recent books, The Emerald Horizon: The History of Nature in Iowa, and A Watershed Year: Anatomy of Iowa’s 2008 Floods. On Wednesday evening, she sat down with the S&B’s Darwin Manning to answer questions about her work.

What role does water play currently in the life of Iowans?
Iowa’s economy and culture is based on us being a good agricultural state and the reason is because we have beautifully rich soil. What happened over time are the prairies … for the first several decades the landscape was still able to modify and purify the waters, as it did before the prairie was plowed, but since then water has really become degraded and as the title of my talk points out we see it more as a curse than a blessing. The two largest issues are water pollution and soil erosion, and so we need to address this. However, we aren’t going to solve these problems without addressing our agricultural issues.

What do you think the issues are with the water in Iowa?
We have some of the worst water quality of any state both in terms of ground water and surface water. In recent years we are beginning to see what we believe is more flooding. We do know the floods rise farther and spread more than they ever have before. It’s quite amazing that the three states that have the most assistance in terms of flooding are Alabama, Mississippi and then Iowa. Flooding in Iowa is a big deal and seems to correlate with our inability to shed water.

What do you hope to make your audience aware of in your talk tomorrow?
What I’ve been doing in the last few years is writing and researching on a wide breadth of water problems. It started with my book The Emerald Horizon, which is a comprehensive natural history of Iowa. That book talked about how we have pushed our ecosystems to such an extent that the resources that are inherent in nature can no longer function.
Three months after that book was published we had one of the largest natural disasters in the history of Iowa—the floods of 2008. I was asked at that point to put together a book about the issues with this, and that came out in March 2010, three months after that we had another flooding. Then people were discussing climate change issues, and I was asked by the governor to work on a climate change impacts report. By the end of doing that, completing these three projects in just two years was very overwhelming to me psychologically.
I’m very concerned about people at Grinnell, bright students getting a really good education in a world where my generation has not done a good job to be honest. You’re inheriting an environment where you’re going to see a lot of changes and problems in your lifetime. The biggest thing I’d like to do is get students to think about how all the problems we are seeing now are somehow connected to environmental problems and to be energized to address them however they can. Just be aware that everything that you’re dealing with can be tied back to this. Look at the tsunami in Japan, why was that so destructive … because of so many people living in a tsunami-prone area.

What is the main thing that you hope readers retain from your books?
To be encouraged to address them, rather than just wanting to ignore them. The big thing for people reading my books is to have a deep understanding that the natural world provides abundant goods and services that govern and regulate the processes in the Earth. We can either take care of these and use them for the benefit of all species or lose them.
My real passion is biodiversity and that’s something that we don’t talk about enough. I hope anyone that reads what I write feels that they can do something about the problem. I like to think that everyone has their own way of addressing the problem.
Even if you do something as small as going back and planting one native plant in your garden, you’re still doing the job of making the world a better place.

What roles do you think you, the other people speaking, and the whole Grinnell community has in creating this change?
For me personally I hope that my writing is educating people and instilling action. I think the most influential book I wrote was a book published twenty years ago called Fragile Giants. That book stimulated changes in governmental policy and legislature. It kind of renamed that area as Les Hills, all of a sudden there was eco-tourism, all sorts of government projects and funds coming in. I hope my writing is my small way of pushing things towards the better.
There’s one quote from Thomas Friedman that I am going to include my talk: “If we want things to stay as they are, we will have to change.” If we want the world to continue to nurture us then we will have to work to sustain it.

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