These natural floods do cause some erosion, especially along streambanks. The resulting cuts in the bank create places for bank swallows and kingfishers to nest. Again, the eroded soil is trapped in the wetlands downstream, where it does little harm. Soon the waters are clear again.
What I learned in the Smokies
It's a mistake to think our city infrastructure--our storm sewers and channels--can handle all the floods. There's a point beyond which it isn't productive to prevent flooding that occurs once the soil is saturated. It's too expensive. We need to find ways to live with the occasional flooding.
By living with flooding, I don't mean we should ignore problems caused by too much pavement. Clearly, we need far more programs to deal with rainwater where it falls. Madison is very backward in this respect. Large buildings need green roofs of succulent plants. We need rain gardens on the terraces and other areas nearby to handle street runoff--for every street except downtown areas.
And we can't stop all the erosion. For example, on the west side of Pheasant Branch Conservancy, an eroding gully was filled with enough stone rubble to choke the Grand Canyon (photo). The erosion needed to be stopped, but the solution was complete overkill. Likewise, I think the solution to erosion in the Hillcrest-Upland Greenway is overdone.
A balanced approach
What I am talking about is the right balance. Soak up the light rains as completely as possible where they fall--but when that fails in extreme storms, learn to moderate and live with the resulting floodwaters.
By live with flooding, I don't mean stand by while people drown. I mean alternative, softer, less destructive solutions. If some businesses along University Ave. get flooded too often, relocate them. If saturated soil in an area causes a few flooded basements, the city needs a program to help citizens waterproof their basements. Lacking balance, the city is too focused on building bigger and better ways to speed floodwaters to the lakes.
We have a knee-jerk response by City Engineering to complaints. If there's a problem like flooding basements or a stream wandering too close to some one's house, people scream "fix it!" And the city applies a Band-Aid to the problem.
But there's no voice, and no process, to ensure that the watershed is improved over the long term, so floodwaters are moderated at the source, where the rain hits the ground.
If only someone could complain: "There's no rain garden here!" And the city would fix it. Don't hold your breath. That this sounds so laughable shows how far out of balance we are.
Madison is too focused on stopping floods downstream from where the water falls. We need to relax that approach, learn other ways to moderate damage from inevitable floods, and refocus on stopping runoff where the raindrops hit the ground.
That would be a better balance.
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