Resilience rocks–the flood

Torrential rains have flooded all the roads to the Delta outpost.  Floods are one of those natural catastrophes that resilient systems survive.  They cause an abrupt omega phase[1] or destruction of the existing system.  Most floods have superficial effects on ecologically integrated systems.  All plants and animals living along streams that flood have developed adaptive and coping mechanisms.  The animals move to higher ground and come back after the floods recede.  Plants in riparian systems are used to wet feet and bounce right back when the water goes down.

main_900Many plants are better off after the flood because it deposits soil and create a richer environment for the alpha or reorganization phase.

Humans like to modify our environments.  Sometimes we do it in ways that mitigate the effects of floods.  At Meadowcreek we have built check dams along the small streams to slow the flow of water and subsequent erosion.  As the water slows, it drops sediment which we use to replenish our garden beds.

More often humans make the effects of floods worse.  We build in flood plains and ignore the fact that the built environment will be swept away.  One of the great disaster relief organizations is the Mennonite Church.  They mobilize thousands of people to come in and help after floods.  Nearly every year they are called to Alaska when the rivers flood and wash away the locals’ houses.  The Mennonites rebuild the houses so the locals can get back to the life they had before..  Everyone thanks good friends like the Mennonites who help in catastrophes.

But let’s look a little broader at the floods in central Alaska.  The people of the region, before it became colonized by Russia and then the US, had adapted to flood by just packing up their tents and moving to higher ground.  When the ground dried out, they came back to the river bank where hunting and fishing was good and transportation easier.  After “civilization” infected their culture, they wanted permanent houses and built them along the river, often with government subsidies.  Now they are destroyed every few years and then rebuilt by the Mennonites.

The farmers along the Mississippi Delta built huge levees to keep the water off their fields.  They don’t get the benefit of the rich soil the flood is carrying, but since they apply huge amounts of fertilizer, they feel they don’t need the natural fertility.  Unfortunately, the levees channel the river and make it move downstream faster and at a higher volume.  The river is flowing so fast that the soil the flooding river carries is not dropped but continues downstream to the Gulf of Mexico.  The nutrients carried by the river, instead of enriching the fields they’ve been forced to pass, end up creating huge algal blooms and “Dead Zones” in the Gulf because the algae depletes the Gulf waters of oxygen.

One of the most highly publicized floods in the US was after the Katrina hurricane in New Orleans.   Most of New Orleans was built on a flood plain which is protected by a dike.  The dikes have keep floodwaters out of the city for generations.  Meanwhile the river has deposited soil all around the city and raised the level of the land and any water on top of it.  So now much of New Orlean is below the level of the surrounding water.

When the waves generated by Katrina found a soft spot in the dike and broke through, much of the city was flooded.  The water had nowhere to go.

I came home to our current floods from meetings on resilience in Washington DC.  The Resilience Project was invited to DC to help an agricultural research and education agency reinvent itself.  Our proposals to remake it in the image of resilience were well received.  On the last day, one participant, CEO of a worker and farmer-owned business, even declared herself “one of the Resilience Project groupies.”[2]

When you get responses like that, it’s hard not to get a big head and think you are the cat’s meow.  But pride goeth before a fall, so its expected and good to be hit with a flood right after leaving DC.  Now we get an opportunity to prove we know something about resilience.   Talk is cheap, and talk in DC easy to find.  Much more fun and rewarding to be back in the country coping with the flood and see how resilient our preparations for disturbance turn out to be.

It’s almost dawn, so we should know soon.

[1] See adaptive cycle Chapter 1 at:

[2] She did use the term groupie, but made it a little more personal.  Ask if you want the exact quote.

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