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Scientists Urge Davenport To Account For Climate Change In Flood Plans

Kate Payne/IPR
Climatologists and hydrologists are urging Davenport officials to account for climate change in their plans for the city's long-term flood recovery.

Scientists are urging Davenport officials to factor in climate change as they debate future flood protection plans. Some analysts say this year’s historic flood levels could’ve been much worse.

National Weather Service scientists told Davenport’s Flood Task Force this week that the city got lucky this year: Davenport’s historic flooding could’ve been much worse.

“It seriously could’ve been worse,” National Weather Service Hydrologist Jessica Brooks told the committee. “This was a big event but there was potential for it to get higher.”

Ahead of this year’s flood season, forecasters said the Upper Mississippi River Basin was primed for flooding; between a wet fall, a snowy winter, and a wet spring, soils were just shy of fully saturated. When rain fell on the already water-logged landscape, it was almost as if it fell on hardened concrete; the water rolled right off and flowed downstream.

Brooks says what kept Davenport’s flooding at a historic 22 feet 7 inch crest was a slower rate of snowmelt upstream of the Quad Cities. If snowpack in Wisconsin and Minnesota had melted faster, river levels could’ve spiked by another three, four or even five feet, projections show.

NWS Climatologist Ray Wolf urged the Flood Task Force to account for how a changing climate could make flooding even worse.

“It’s hard to look in the future and not have a conversation about climate change. And I understand climate change is a very politically-charged issue. It’s not politically charged amongst the scientists that research climate,” Wolf said. “The agreement on these…on where we are headed climate-wise is pervasive in the climate community.”

He says the Midwest is slated to get more frequent and more intense rain and snow, and with it, the chance for more flooding.

“27 and a half, 28 feet is in the realm of possibility. That’s what we learned this year,” Wolf said. “You’re looking at longer-term investment. And it’s important to know what the river will be like on the time scale of those long-term investments.”

Davenport Mayor Frank Klipsch says the climate analysis means the city needs to think about flood protection on multiple time scales: what can be done immediately and what can be done in the long-term.

“We’re talking about a long-term strategy into the future but we’ve got to be ready for the next flood, which may happen before that long-term strategy can be implemented,” Klipsch said. “We’ve had fall floods before. So we have to be prepared for that now."

Davenport residents shouldn’t rest, Wolf and Brooks say: this scale of record-breaking flooding may well happen again, and soon.

“This isn’t something that will never happen again,” Brooks said. “Just because this happened this year doesn’t mean we couldn’t have the exact same conditions happen next year. Or have a flood later this fall, or even three, four weeks from now.”

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter