Perceived Wasteland

Seven months ago I sat in on a conference presentation that had to do with flood risk. The presenter brilliantly began by showing a series of five photos. As each one was projected onto the front wall she asked, “Is this a flood plain?”

The audience was made up of the kind of people who would squeeze themselves into school desks and devote a beautiful Saturday to learning about environmental issues. We fumbled for the answer. “Come on folks,” she encouraged. I shyly spoke up, “Yes.” She shook her head in agreement and continued.

“Is this a flood plain?” she asked again. The scenes grew dryer and dryer until the last one depicted Arizona’s Grand Canyon. By then we were on to her, and the entire class confidently said, “Yes.”

Her point was that, like the Colorado River carving the wondrous canyon, water leaves its channel eternally. It’s up to us to determine the risk associated with that fact. We build and live alongside waterways based on the likelihood and frequency of the aquatic escape.

We talked about the Federal Emergency Management Association’s (FEMA) flood insurance and flood maps as well as flood catastrophes, flood preparation, and flood mitigation. Wendy Lathrop amazed me by the depth of her knowledge and the patience in her explanations.

Amidst all the data and technicalities and rules and guidelines, one point stood out: We need to rethink our beliefs about floodplains. “This is not wasteland,” Wendy stated passionately.

A floodplain is a floodplain whether it has water in it or not. Frequent visits to the stream that flows behind my house have shown me just how drastically different the same waterway can look from one day to the next.

On Tuesday, I walked down a 300-foot stretch of Swamp Creek. Not on its banks, but right down its middle. It was a river of rocks. Every so often I’d pass a small boulder that was one to two feet tall. Almost square, they looked like gray, damaged boxes fallen from a plane.

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On Thursday after a day of heavy rain, I visited again. There would be no walking down the center. A strong current about 40 feet wide had overtaken the channel and, except for a few tops, the boxes were gone from sight.

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Come spring, when the snow melts, the edge I stood on Thursday will be creek bottom. Come thunderstorms, the footprints that I made in the silt on the pathway to get to the creek will be washed from the surface so far back from Thursday’s waterline it is simply inconceivable.

It’s marvelous to stand in a scene where nature is untouched. Your wildest imagination cannot picture the same place filled with snow, covered in ice, or flooded with rain. What barely trickled between a channel of rocks will raise up to the cliff banks before my next birthday. Water will work its way into the natural ravines and eddies for a rest, always on the level, unable to contract, seemingly able to expand.

On the days between floods, the wildflowers will dare to survive. The sun will warm the silt, the seed with germinate, the plant will grow, the bee will visit, and more seeds will fall, all with a slight sense of urgency, for there is no certainty as to when the next rise will occur.

“Is this a floodplain?” you ask. In some cases the answer is obvious. The landscape is easy to identify. Flood debris and flattened trees liter the wide area of low ground on either side of the stream. In others, where the flood levels could reach the window tops, we look to FEMA and topography maps to answer. Which scenario is wasteland? That may depend on what happened last night or what is forecast to happen tomorrow.
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If you want to learn more about the FEMA process, particularly FEMA buyouts, you can watch a similar presentation of Wendy’s, given at the 2013 Watershed Congress Along the Schuylkill. To do so, click here.