Monday, June 30, 2008

Flooding and science literacy.


Our local Jackson County Mississippi peak looms. Highway 3 at Chester, my favorite route to St. Louis, will be closed.

I like this quote from a NY Times blog interview with Kamyar Enshayan, a science educator in Iowa:

Q. Why did the same practices that were blamed for a lot of the devastation of the 1993 floods continue afterward, even though laws were passed and promises were made that old habits would change?

A. Memory loss, short-term thinking, and lack of math and science literacy among policy makers and elected officials. Science illiteracy is costly, even fatal. Cities see the floodplain lands sitting there “doing nothing”: they are a “tax base,” waiting to be developed. Setback distances for building near a street are sacred, but building near a river, no problem.

I worked with colleagues at the Missouri Department of Conservation back in the 1980's to develop the distant ancestors of our Emriver models because we realized then that only education could combat the dumb things that people do to rivers.

While I'm quoting, I got a great email today from an conservationist/educator in New York State who uses our Emriver model (thanks, "Echo"), here's an excerpt:

"We [use the Emriver model to] train everyone from kids, landowners, fair goers, contractors, regulators, politicians, and ourselves. Not everyone believes in stream geomorphology, but they all believe what they see in the Emriver model."

A while back I talked about the size and scope of the levees, how its difficult to fathom the cost and human effort. The top image is about that, its from a US COE site here. Note the sequential raising of the levee, far beyond what you see in the photo, which was taken about 1882. (A click on the image will open a larger one).

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Manmade flooding on the Mississippi?



I'm back at work, alive, but only barely because I have to give up caffeine for a while.

Our SIUC colleague Nicholas Pinter was quoted in an excellent article by Micheal Grunwald in TIME magazine today. Grunwald takes the US Army Corps of Engineers to task for its management of the Mississippi River:

Professors Nicholas Pinter of Southern Illinois University, Robert Criss of Washington University and Timothy Kusky of Saint Louis University have calculated that Corps structures are stacking up water during floods — as much as two meters around Winfield, Mo., and nearly six meters around Grand Tower, Ill. "River engineering is the 800-pound gorilla driving these flood levels higher," says Pinter, who oversees the database and wrote the March 4 letter. "We're not talking inches higher; we're talking meters higher."

Pinter and others argue that levees and navigation structures on the Mississippi have substantially raised flood elevations--that a given discharge results in a higher elevation and more flooding because of these structures.

Much of the criticism centers on the modeling methods the Corps uses, especially studies like this one using what they call Micromodeling. The Corps micromodels are little different from our Emriver models, and many scientists, including the author of this 2006 Journal of Hydraulic Engineering article, believe that they are not at all appropriate to use for modeling flood elevations on rivers of any size, let alone the Middle Mississippi.

Having much experience with the plastic media used in these models, I strongly agree. The models are wonderful simulators, and can do some predictive modeling, but not of flood stages on the Mississippi River.

All in all, if Pinter and others are right, the Corps structures, along with likely increases in frequency and magnitude of flood flows from climate change, are bad news for Mississippi River floodplain dwellers.

Quite a few good links with this Google search.

The illustration is from Fisk's monumental 1944 study of the Mississippi River. Downloads of the report and its beautiful maps here.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Live (thankfully) from Carbondale Memorial Hospital.


I took a short swim in Little Grassy Lake Monday after work. And developed atrial fibrillation. Feels like a very fast, irregular heartbeat, with the occasional strong pulse. Like a bunch of hyperactive worms where your heart should be. I don't recommend it.

Kate and a couple of friends rushed me to the hospital, where this afternoon the very able staff shocked my heart back into a normal rhythm. We hope to go home tonight, tomorrow at the latest.

I guess life just wasn't interesting enough. I'll most likely be fine and 100% soon. Kate's taking great care of me. I'm very glad to be OK, thanks to her and the wonderful staff here. '

UPDATE: Got to go home Tuesday night, feeling great..

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Mississippi levees on a bicycle.




We've had some beautiful clear, dry-air mornings here the past few days--which is why you're seeing all those spectacular blue-sky aerials of the Mississippi flooding in the news.

Kate had the great idea of heading over to the Mississippi levee roads for a long bike ride this morning. We did a 30-mile out and back on the Mississippi floodplain starting at Gorham (about 15 miles west of Carbondale). The sky was spectacular, it was a perfect day to be out on that vast (four miles wide) floodplain. Here's a map. It's part of the TransAmerica Trail - a well-used cross continent route.

The flooding there, which will peak over the next couple of days, is nothing like that farther north. But much of this floodplain was underwater in 1993. Some of the big diesel pumps were laboring, though, our local rainfall has been high, and the tributaries have to be pumped through the levee into the high Mississippi.

I'm never been able to comprehend the magnitude of human effort expended to clear the bottomland forests and build the thousands of miles of levees that converted these vast floodplains into farmland.

The levees we rode must be 40 feet tall and 200 wide at the base (I'm estimating). That cross section gives 8,000 cubic feet of dirt per linear foot of levee, or 1.5 million cubic yards per mile. And there are thousands of miles of this levee along the Mississippi, counting all the tributary levees.

It hardly seems possible. You're an ant pedaling the levee crest on a bike. These things are man-made mountains. And they have to be mowed and maintained, along with the pumps and control structures. I can't imagine the cost, an issue I'll leave alone in this post.

We saw a juvenile bald eagle in the USFWS area towards the end of the ride. And had a Coke in the cool little family bar/grill in Neunert. The woman who served us said she'd taken care of a lot of TransAmerica riders from the Netherlands this year.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Mississippi flood coverage.


More excellent coverage by the NY Times today, with a nice graphic here. Article here with a quote from Galloway:

“We told them there were going to be more floods like this,” said Dr. Galloway, now an engineering professor at the University of Maryland. “Everybody likes to go out and shake hands on the levee now and offer sandbags, but that’s not helpful. This shouldn’t have happened in the first place.”

Durbin and Obama are calling for meetings with the Secretary of Ag on crop impacts.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Big news on climate change and flooding.

Yesterday we saw a major shift in attitudes and politics regarding climate change and its effects on violent weather and flooding.

From a NOAA press release, where you can find links to the full report:

The U.S. Climate Change Science Program and the Subcommittee on Global Change Research today released a scientific assessment that provides the first comprehensive analysis of observed and projected changes in weather and climate extremes in North America . . . Among the major findings reported in this assessment are that droughts, heavy downpours, excessive heat, and intense hurricanes are likely to become more commonplace as humans continue to increase the atmospheric concentrations of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

And for the first time the AP and other news agencies made the connection. More great coverage of the flooding by the NY Times and mention of the NOAA report. Some very nice aerials taken in yesterday's clear weather.


Today's coverage
: Looks like the St. Louis area will see a peak more than 10 feet below that of 1993, good news, especially for East St. Louis.

General Galloway was on NPR this afternoon, noting nearly all the recommendations he made after 1993 were ignored.

And a link to a meteorologist's take on our 500-year floods coming every few years.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

NSF says no. Not yet.

I rode my bike into work for the first time today, determined to do the ~8 mile round trip this way as much as possible. It was a beautiful morning and I was glad to be cycling through Carbondale.

Even though I'd learned via early-morning email that our request for National Science Foundation (NSF) funding was denied. Our proposal, which included collaborators at SIUC, the U. of Illinois, UC-Berkeley, and others was to use Emriver models to teach science fundamentals to undergrads and GK-12 students.

It was a damn good proposal. We at LRRD spent well over 250 person-hours, at a cost of at least $15,000, (I worked for free, add pay for me, triple that) on it. We worked through the Christmas and New Year's holidays to finalize and submit. NSF proposals aren't for the weak at heart. There were sentences we rewrote many times to get them just right.

Here's a sentence from NSF's review summary:

No statistical data is (sic) available to shared (sic) light into (sic) the outcomes.

In fairness, the reviewers have a lot of material to plow through. Cara read the reviews first and said, "Steve, you just have to take deep breaths as you're reading." We aimed very high, and knew the odds of funding on first submission weren't good. None of us are surprised we were denied. But it stings to see your agonized-over prose reviewed thus.

We know LRRD is one of the most well-meaning capitalist enterprises on the planet, but how to convey that? I've worked for no pay for nearly a year now, if anybody's listening.

Our NSF-savvy collaborators and supporters at SIUC tell me our overall rating (good-to-very-good) was very positive, and that we should definitely re-submit.

Even if NSF never gives us money, there are great benefits from this effort. We found our colleagues at Winona State this way, and also put together a comprehensive lit review on moveable-bed river models (finding out ours is the best). We developed strong ties with colleagues at SIUC, whom we admire all the more now. We were honored these scientists wanted to collaborate with us.

And LRRD is doing very well otherwise.

Cara did some incredible work keeping track of the entire process and writing the proposal, among other things. Thanks to Cara, Kate, and everybody else.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Bicycles are good for you.






And Carbondale in the spring is a wonderful place to ride.

I don't mind saying the stress of running this business has been intense, and I went to work today in a black mood. Most of this stress comes from our good fortune. You're not supposed to complain.

Kate persuaded me to take some time off this afternoon and we did a long bike ride. Somewhere in the first few miles I forgot about work.

Though a bad year for farming and flooding, it's been a good year for native plants. She took these pictures of milkweed and butterflies along the way, and even a decent one of me.

Links on climate, flooding, and monitoring.

A NY Times Dot Earth blog post with a wealth of links and analysis on climate and rainfall intensity and frequency.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Mississippi R. flooding moves downstream.


A Burlington, IA photo from the NY Times, which is doing some very good coverage, including a good article today, and a nice interactive graphic on the home page. Also a retrospective on Chelsea, IA, which had the opportunity to relocated after the 1993, but didn't and is underwater again.

Jeff Master's blog has some interesting comments and links on costs of this flood.

Here's the NOAA forecast for the Mississippi at St. Louis.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Corn, flooding, climate change.




I believe that climate change may be the most important issue facing river managers, especially those concerned with the effects of flooding on people. Dodging tornadoes to deliver our Em4 to Winona, MN and later doing fieldwork in Michigan, Jesse, Cara, and I drove through much of the corn belt over the last two weeks. An NPR interviewee this morning said nobody's seen a year for corn like this one, ever, with some planting still undone and millions of acres planted very late. We saw this firsthand in our long drives.

This spring's flooding is a dark harbinger of what many of us expect on the big midwestern rivers: The 500-year levees aren't that, they're maybe 30-year levees, and with climate change, all bets are off. And people have around $3 billion on the table in the Chesterfield Valley west of St. Louis. Nice NY Times article, quoting our local friend Nicholas Pinter, here.

A few links (and see the linkbar at right) on climate change, flooding, and midwestern ag:


Reuters on the flooding, agriculture, and corn prices.

From climateprogress.org.

American Geophysical Union statement on climate change.

And climate change can mean too little water: From T.H. Brikowski in a recent J. of Hydrology paper.

"Streamflow declines on the Great Plains of the US are causing many Federal reservoirs to become profoundly inefficient, and will eventually drive them into unsustainability as negative annual reservoir water budgets become more common. The streamflow declines are historically related to groundwater mining, but since the mid-1980s correlate increasingly with climate. This study highlights that progression toward unsustainability, and shows that future climate change will continue streamflow declines at historical rates, with severe consequences for surface water supply."

Friday, June 13, 2008

2,300 miles, no problems.




It's nice to be home.

Cara and I started at 6:30 Detroit time, (5:30 Carbondale) this morning, hoping to get a final bit of field work done.

The bottom fell out as we reached the site, so we retreated to a coffee shop (photos) and watched the Motor City power brokers run in and out with bagels and coffee. The weather news wasn't good, so we headed home a day early. Six hundred miles through a lot of rain.

This makes about 2,300 miles I've done in the last two weeks in confined spaces with either Cara or Jesse, and we're all still in one piece. We've dodged tornadoes* and flooding, I can't believe we're not seeing our first year of serious climate change problems.

I'm a lot wiser for this fifty or so hours of conversation, and hope I'm not the only one.

And we accomplished great things, installing a simulated river in Minnesota and mapping a real one in Michigan. I can take a little break now.

*Except that Jesse wants to see a tornado and tried to drive our Em4-loaded truck (along with me) into one south of Champaign.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Accidentally offending golf ladies.


West of Detroit, Michigan: Cara and I are finishing a few days of grueling work surveying a suburban creek here. It's a wealthy place. Some of the creek runs near a golf course. It's odd to be up to your knees in muck holding a level rod while watching people ride around on manicured grass in golf carts. We’re used to the stares we get as we climb out of the briar patches and swamps considered off limits by these folks.

But when Cara emerged from some high grass to clear its pollen from her nose in a manner that farm boys, field scientists, and bicyclists know well, the golf ladies she noticed after the fact were unfamiliar with this technique, and she thinks were seriously offended.

Cara found a buried soil, a big treat for a soils person, and besides doing a marvelous job of putting up with me and getting some very difficult work done, taught me more in a couple of hours about soils than I learned in years of classes.

We've had a hard time with this year's weather completing this one, and I'm happy we're nearly done. It's a serious monitoring project, and we're also recommending management for some amazing forests and wetlands that might have otherwise gone neglected.

And I got paid to take photos of wetland plants, fun. Here’s some sumac.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Em4, fieldwork in Detroit, tornadoes.

I'm worn and stressed out, but managed to take a whole day off yesterday. Not so lucky today.

It's horribly hot in Carbondale, and the entire Midwest seems to be getting hit by tornadoes, including the Chicago burbs just today. Jesse and I narrowly missed one just west of there last week.

I'll just link to a PDF on the Em4 installation at Winona state with a bit more info. I'm too tired to do much else.

Tomorrow we'll be busy getting ready for fieldwork on a little creek west of Detroit.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Em4 in Winona, Minnesota.



I'm posting from a hotel in Janesville, WI. In the last two days Jesse and I've driven about 850 miles and successfully installed our first Emriver Em4 in the Science Learning Center, a stunning new building at Winona State University.

This project had to happen fast, and we added our new color-coded media to this big box for the fist time. The results were incredible and everybody was very happy. The new media and bigger box make a huge difference, and despite my hundreds (thousands?) of hours of using them it was like seeing one for the first time. We spent maybe 45 minutes just making a big delta, changing base level a few times. Not at all boring with this machine.

The windows you see in the bottom picture open into the huge atrium (top photo), so students can look through and see the model in use. There's even a webcam. That's Cathy Summa, who along with Toby Dogwiler, made all this happen. Thanks, ya'll.

More later.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Leaving the nest.


On Friday, Jesse reminded me of George C. Scott in Patton.

Barking orders to me and a helper from TREA, he managed to get four Emriver models and our first Em4 ready for delivery to Minnesota. I tried not to get in his way. Especially when he rolled three 250 pound drums off our pickup truck with a creative slide-and-drop-without-damage move.

OK, he wasn't barking orders, but deftly manipulating us. It was clear we should do what he said.

I spent hours this beautiful, sunny weekend getting an urban geomorph assessment done, an important one. When you dig deeply into a reach of river and have good data, sometimes cool things emerge, and my Sunday morning in the dungeon was fruitful.

For a while I've been watching these two mourning dove chicks who've hatched in the shed where I park my truck. Like our Emriver models, leaving the nest soon.