With strong western winds came sunshine. The last of the season’s snow had melted and those along the shore prepared for spring. Chainsaws cleared driftwood from the shoreline. The smell of burning wood and fresh manure wafted out onto the water. Tractors turned the land and campers moved their RV’s back to the water’s edge. Then it rained. Hard. The river crept up a few feet, ruining the first warm weekend of the year. Blustery sunshine returned and the river’s crest began to drop. But before the soil dried and the next crop was sown the rains returned. For the next two and half weeks storms, born in the warm moist air of the Gulf of Mexico, soaked the southern and midwestern US. Tornadoes ravaged communities and remade the landscape while floodwaters rose.
When the historic rise began I was staying in Grandview, a small town in rural Indiana. One evening a local man insisted I see the countryside. He feared that from my vantage point in my kayak I was missing the beauty of his homeland. We drove down long narrow roads of crushed gravel. Fields stretches off towards the horizon. The small green shoots of the season’s first crop tinted the rusty soil. Miles from the river he pointed out fields that had flooded in past springs—the high water of ’50 or ’54—he was born in ’56 so he admitted his recollection might be slightly off. He showed me woodlots where generations of his family had ephemerally hunted morels.
That evening neither of us anticipated the record rainfall that was to come. In the weeks that followed those fields and woods became backwaters as the Ohio expanded across its broad floodplain. As I worked my way downstream the severity of the season’s flood increased. High water impacted communities dozens of miles from the river. Towns on the Ohio rose floodwalls and prayed levees would hold. Roads closed, levees failed, schools flooded, and children were sent home to help the National Guard fling sandbags against the river’s advance.
The seemingly unending rains washed fertilizes and pesticides off fields, overwhelmed sewage treatment plants, and powered the outfalls that dot the shorelines of the upper Ohio—outfalls from chemical plants, piles of hazardous coal fly ash, and countless industrial discharge pipes—all these adding their piece to the floodwaters that invaded the lives of those along the river. These additives played no part in rising the river’s crest—that role falls to vanished wetlands, antiquate methods of stormwater retention, and record rainfall—but they are a part of the disaster that impacts those along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.
When the waters finally recede, as they have begun to do nearly a month after beginning their rise, the silt left behind will contain some concentration of these poisons. They will be present in the fields when the next crop is planted, in the school yards when students return in the fall, and in the homes that survive the flood waters. Drinking water quality will be impacted and countless emergency workers and volunteers were exposed to these hazardous waters as they struggled with weary backs and leaky boots to protect their communities from the rising water.
The pollution that stays suspended in the river will flow south, contaminating drinking water and wiping out crops for millions of people in a half dozen states. Eventually this suspended tide will make its way to the Gulf of Mexico contributing to a dead zone that promises to make 2011 another tough summer for those human and natural communities that depend on the gulf coast’s bounty.
We have no way to control the rain—and we have seen that the controls we put on our river’s only last so long—but we need to control what we put along our river’s banks, spray onto our fields, and allow to flow into our waters because it ultimately comes back to us.