If you’ve ever been flooded, you know it leaves a lasting impression. Your confidence in the status quo is never quite the same after that. You know that really bad things — on a really big scale — can, and do, happen.
When I was growing up in New Orleans, my parents’ home was flooded. It just would not stop raining for about a solid month, and eventually, there was no place for the water to go, so it started rising in the canals faster than the pumping stations could get rid of it.
I remember my dad, along with other men in our neighborhood, sandbagging the banks of the canal near us. Then they sandbagged around our houses, but it was all to no avail. The water topped the sandbags, and before we could drive away, there was water in our house. We had to be evacuated by military vehicles of some kind. I think they were called “Army ducks.” It’s hard to remember exactly. I was pretty young at the time.
All of that was bad enough, but when we got back home, our house was filled with mud and worms. What a horrible mess it was, and I do remember thinking, Why don’t they build houses that float when the water comes up? Of course, there really are such houses. They’re called houseboats. But some actual floating houses have been built in The Netherlands that do rise with the water. They’re sort of fixed-in-place houseboats, but from what I understand, they’re terribly expensive to build. Cool idea though.
All of us who are seeing the terrible devastation that the floods along the Mississippi and other major rivers have caused can’t help but wonder if something can’t be done, and people are starting to write about it and offer up suggestions. Here are a few of the more serious ones:
Let the River Flood Upstream. The Corps of Engineers, the ones who are responsible for the construction and maintenance of the levees, has a proposal, coming up for review this summer, to allow the rivers a little bit of leeway to spill over their banks upstream instead of pushing the water downstream in a space tightly confined by the levees. (We’ve sort of put the river in a “tube” and hoped that it would stay there.) The problem with letting the river naturally overflow is that no one upstream wants to be flooded either. Seems that the government would need to purchase land to be used as sort of natural spillways. Do you think that will stir up some controversy? Do bears… ahem… you know, in the woods? No one wants their lands to be flooded, naturally or not. We’ll see how this proposal flies this summer.
Pipe the Water Where It’s Needed. Then there’s the guy who wants to build pipelines from the big rivers in the midwest to places out way west that dearly need the water. (Can you say Texas?) His idea, put forth in a very scholarly way, is to pipe the excess water to places like Lake Mead in Nevada, which is desperate for water. He asks some good questions. Why can’t we move water around the way we move natural gas and oil? Heck, we built a huge, 800-mile-long pipeline in Alaska that has pumped billions of gallons of oil, so we know that long, long pipelines are at least “do-able.” Maybe this is an idea that could fly. Why not? We’ve got big problems. Let’s think big.
Catch the Water Before It Runs Off. Another idea I’ve read is to catch runoff before it gets into the river. According to one observer, Germany had the idea to build catchment ponds and basins and dry wells to catch rain runoff instead of piping it all into the Danube and other major rivers in Germany. As it turns out, Germany is having increasing flooding problems, which it appears they blame exclusively on climate change. But who knows? Maybe they’re right.
At any rate, we’d have to have some really big dry wells, and lots of them, to catch the runoff from all the pavement and rooftops we have in the mid-west. Still, it’s not a terrible idea because the stored rainwater would eventually percolate downward and replenish ground water supplies, which we dearly need. Just ask a Texan.
Catch Rainwater On-Site. There are actually a number of ways to retain rainwater on-site instead of allowing it to run off. Rain barrels can catch a bit of the water from downspouts. We have two, and we use them all the time to water potted plants. We haven’t had rain since February, and there is still water in both barrels. They’re pretty neat. You have to have a pump to water plants the way the guy below is doing. Without a pump, the water just trickles out. No pressure.
Cut Down on the Runoff in the First Place. My thinking is that maybe we need to use more porous types of concrete in driveways and lightly-traveled suburban streets. This would allow the rainwater to get into the ground, instead of going down a storm drain. Minnesota is already experimenting with using this type of concrete in parking lots. It’s said to be “pervious” instead of impervious to water. Water seeps right through it. See below. So, it would seem there are a lot of ways to deal with heavy rains before they turn into floods, and there are a lot of smart people in this world. I know we can figure this out.