A Fresh View of Floodplain Ecology and Management

by Jeff Opperman and Peter Moyle, co-authors of Floodplains: Processes and Management for Ecosystem Services

Last week, we saw tragic images of floods across the world, from Houston to Niger to south Asia, with more than 1,300 deaths from floods in India, Nepal and Bangladesh.

Floods are among the most costly natural disasters worldwide and the loss of life and property, from Houston to Mumbai, gave a very human face to the impersonal statistics: in recent years, global damages have ranged between $30 and 60 billion and more than 100 million people have been displaced by flooding.

These events are also warnings about a likely future: in a warming world, many regions will experience more frequent and intense flooding.

It is hard to imagine a flood-management system that could have effectively contained the historic amount of rain that fell on southeast Texas—several feet in just a few days. However, even if all floods can’t be contained, governments must still invest in measures to improve safety for people and reduce damages. The key is to move beyond a primary focus on the structural measures—dams and levees—that strive to contain floods, and toward a “diversified portfolio” approach. Nonstructural measures—such as zoning, building codes and insurance—are key to keeping people out of harm’s way. Another critical strategy is to integrate green infrastructure—natural features such as wetlands and floodplains—into flood-management systems.

In river basins around the world, from the Mississippi to the Sacramento to the Rhine, managers have moved away from a strict reliance on engineered levees, which confine rivers and attempt to contain floods. Instead, they have moved towards reconnecting rivers to parts of their historic floodplains. On these reconnected floodplains, floodwaters can spread out and reduce risks to communities and farmland in other areas.

We have documented this trend, and reasons why green infrastructure can be so effective, in our book, Floodplains: Processes and Management for Ecosystem Services.

The book is based on our many years of studying floodplains in California, a leader in using floodplains for flood management. But we also explore other regions, especially Europe, Australia, and Asia, for new insights.

Our focus is reconciliation ecology, the science of integrating functioning ecosystems into landscapes dominated by people. This framework is key to understanding the full potential of green infrastructure: by reducing flood risk, wetlands and floodplains function as infrastructure. But they are also “green”—they are ecosystems that are influenced by complex and intertwined biophysical processes. The first part of our book reviews these processes—encompassing hydrology, geomorphology, biogeochemistry, and ecology—and how they respond to management interventions.

A hallmark of green infrastructure is that these ecosystem processes can provide multiple benefits beyond flood-risk reduction. For floodplains, these benefits include habitat for fish and wildlife, groundwater recharge, carbon sequestration, and open space and recreation. Thus, realizing the full potential of green infrastructure will come from an integrated approach, one in which engineers, scientists and planners collaborate on management to provide multiple benefits. The second part of the book includes a number of case studies of these new management approaches.

To be clear, we are not suggesting that floodplains and wetlands are the answer to reducing current and future flood risk. Rather, we think that a flood-management system that relies on green infrastructure in addition to engineered infrastructure and sound nonstructural policies, will increase safety for people and provide a broad range of other benefits.

The book’s closing paragraph articulates this optimism that integrated management can improve safety for people while promoting a range or natural services:

“Our time spent on rivers and floodplains has certainly shown us that much has changed and been lost over time. But we have seen more than just glimmers of hope in reconciled floodplains that are diverse and productive. We take heart from the huge flocks of migratory white geese and black ibis that congregate annually on California floodplains and from knowing that, beneath the floodwaters, juvenile salmon are swimming, feeding, and growing among cottonwoods and rice stalks, before heading out to sea. We can envision greatly expanded floodplains that are centerpieces of many regions, protecting people but also featuring wildlands, wildlife, and floodplain-friendly agriculture. Connectivity among floodplains, people and wild creatures is within reach, as is a future in which people work with natural processes rather than continually fighting them.”


Jeffrey J. Opperman is the global lead freshwater scientist for WWF and a research associate at the University of California, Davis.

Peter B. Moyle is Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Department of Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology and Associate Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis.


A Yosemite National Park Reading List

On this day in 1864 President Lincoln signed a law leading to the protection of what we know today as Yosemite National Park. Dive deeper into the history of this iconic landscape with these books.

Yosemite: Art of an American Icon edited by Amy Scott

This lavishly illustrated volume offers a stunning new view of Yosemite’s visual history by presenting two hundred works of art together with provocative essays that explore the rich intersections between art and nature in this incomparable Sierra Nevada wilderness. Integrating the work of Native peoples, it provides the first inclusive view of the artists who helped create an icon of the American wilderness by featuring painting, photography, basketry, and other artworks from both well-known and little-studied artists from the nineteenth century to the present.

 

Glaciers of California: Modern Glaciers, Ice Age Glaciers, the Origen of Yosemite Valley, and a Glacier Tour in the Sierra Nevada by Bill Guyton

Bill Guyton summarizes the history of the discovery of Ice Age glaciation and modern-day glaciers in California, as well as the development of modern ideas about the state’s glacial history. He describes the controversy about the origin of Yosemite Valley and quotes from the colorful accounts of early mountain explorers such as John Muir, Josiah Whitney, and François Matthes.

 

Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Hidden Wars of the American West by Rebecca Solnit

In this foundational book of landscape theory and environmental thinking, Rebecca Solnit explores our national Eden and Armageddon and offers a pathbreaking history of the west, focusing on the relationship between culture and its implementation as politics. In a new preface, she considers the continuities and changes of these invisible wars in the context of our current climate change crisis, and reveals how the long arm of these histories continue to inspire her writing and hope.

The Mountains That Remade America: How Sierra Nevada Geology Impacts Modern Life by Craig H. Jones

This book combines geology with history to show how the particular forces and conditions that created the Sierra Nevada have effected broad outcomes and influenced daily life in the United States in the past and how they continue to do so today. Drawing connections between events in historical geology and contemporary society, Craig H. Jones makes geological science accessible and shows the vast impact this mountain range has had on the American West.

 

Uncertain Path: A Search for the Future of National Parks by William C. Tweed

Tweed, who worked among the Sierra Nevada’s big peaks and big trees for more than thirty years, has now hiked more than 200 miles along California’s John Muir Trail in a personal search for answers: How do we address the climate change we are seeing even now—in melting glaciers in Glacier National Park, changing rainy seasons on Mt Rainer, and more fire in the West’s iconic parks. Should we intervene where we can to preserve biodiversity? Should the parks merely become ecosystem museums that exhibit famous landscapes and species? Asking how we can make these magnificent parks relevant for the next generation, Tweed, through his journey, ultimately shows why we must do just that.


The Mountains That Remade America

This is the first post in our Earth Week blog series. Check back every day between now and Friday for new blog posts. 

by Craig Jones, author of The Mountains That Remade America: How Sierra Nevada Geology Impacts Modern Life

Earth Day falls the day after John Muir’s birthday, an apropos juxtaposition as Muir’s influence can be found in the concept of lobbying on behalf of the earth. Although Emerson and Thoreau promoted nature, theirs was an eastern nature that was recovering from settlement; Muir’s untamed western nature led him to a far more active role.

When John Muir began wandering the Sierra Nevada in 1868, its western foothills were already savaged by the Gold Rush. Forests were being felled for timber to support the deep mines in the Mother Lode and Comstock. Yet, almost peculiarly, the High Sierra where Muir wandered was free of settlements, and mines, and loggers. It was also relatively empty of Native Americans, largely because of disease, warfare, dislocation and starvation, but also because the high part of the range was never more than a seasonal refuge for the tribes that otherwise lived on the range’s flanks. The absence of miners and Indians was because of the granite backbone of the range, too high to settle and barren of minerals. It was the absence of nearly all things human, quite distinct from eastern lands, that led Muir to state “that wildness is a necessity” and note “in God’s wildness lies the hope of the world – the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness.” Muir had removed people from wilderness.

Muir’s literary excision of native peoples from these wild lands they had used elevated unsettled land to a higher plane. While Easterners hiked through second growth forest between towns, Muir demanded landscapes wholly untouched by civilization. In observing the growth of timbering and sheepherding, he saw his touchstone lands at risk. This led him to political activism instead of mere literary adventurism; he began to write advocacy pieces for Eastern magazines; he would lobby politicians to create new parks. In his struggles to protect lands around Yosemite Valley, Muir recognized that a broader organization was needed. And so he helped to found the Sierra Club.

Muir’s Sierra Club had a unique aspect to its mission, stating in the original Agreement of Association in 1892 to “enlist the support and co-operation of the people and the government in preserving the forests and other features of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.” This was no mere hiking club, though that was part of the club’s persona; this was a genuine lobbying organization from its start in 1892.

In the year prior to the first Earth Day, the club went to court on behalf of a mountain valley named Mineral King in the Sierra that would lead, about a year after the first Earth Day, to a cherished opinion made by Justice William O. Douglas: “Contemporary public concern for protecting nature’s ecological equilibrium should lead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation. This suit would therefore be more properly labeled as Mineral King v. Morton.” Muir’s club had helped make it possible for the earth itself to be a plantiff in U.S. courts.


Craig H. Jones is Professor of Geological Sciences and Fellow with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He has published peer-reviewed research in ScienceNature, and in prominent earth-science journals. He is also the coauthor of Introduction to Applied Geophysics, and he blogs as the Grumpy Geophysicist.


Crossing the ‘Borderwall’: Projectiles

Depending on your intake of current event news, the wall—existing and potential—between the United States and Mexico has been a staple feature of this administration’s diet. Among other things it’s divisive, unrealistic, and up for debate on how it will be funded, but author Ronald Rael looks at it in a completely unique way: as an architect, as a citizen, and as someone who grew up occupying the borderlands himself. Ciudad Juárez-based journalist Judith Torrea describes his new book as “astonishing and magical: a realm where the absurdity of a wall is transformed from obstructive and negative to an affirmation of shared humanity.”

The below excerpt appears in a section of the book entitled, ‘Recuerdos/Souvenirs’, which proposes unsolicited counterproposals, both tragic and sublime, for the existing wall along the border.

Automobiles carrying people and drugs are not the only things traveling through the air over the wall. During the Middle Ages, with the rise of fortified castles and city walls, the catapult became an essential tool to launch objects and even bodies over protective walls. It was also a time when the cannon became a standard method of breaching walls. With the catapult’s and the cannon’s shared history of launching humans through the air, it is unsurprising that these medieval technologies would resurface in reaction to the anachronistic security barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Among the projectile launchers created to hurdle the wall are catapults, used by drug traffickers to hurl marijuana and other contraband over the borderwall. Packages of marijuana are bulkier than heroin or cocaine and therefore more difficult to smuggle hidden in vehicles or carried by hand. The catapults confiscated by Mexican authorities are built upon trailers that can easily attached to a truck, making them very portable. These “pot-a-pults,” which can be as tall as 9 feet, are constructed with steel and a strong elastic band and can hurl marijuana bales weighing approximately 4.4 pounds each. These borderland trebuchets have been discovered in use along the Arizona-Mexico border near the cities of Naco and Agua Prieta.

More powerful are the cannons used to launch packets of marijuana over the borderwall into Calexico, California, from Mexicali, Mexico. These homemade cannons are fashioned from plastic pipe and makeshift metal tanks containing either compressed air (produced by an automobile engine) or encapsulated compressed carbon dioxide. These cannons have been known to fire thirty-pound canisters of marijuana up to 500 feet. Thirty-three such canisters, fired out of one of these cannons and valued at $42,500, were recently discovered near Yuma, Arizona.

So, have people also been launched over the wall? An episode of the television program MythBusters tested the theory that in addition to drugs, immigrants themselves were becoming human projectiles and being flung two hundred yards across the border into the United States. The show constructed a human-sized slingshot to see if it was possible. The tests involved the launch of a mannequin over a fictional U.S.- Canadian border and used a chain-link fence topped with razor wire to mark the border—a vision clearly inspired by the U.S-Mexico wall. And although the MythBusters team was able to propel the dummy 211 feet, it was concluded that it didn’t seem possible to launch humans accurately enough to ensure their safety.

Although there is no evidence that migrants are being launched over the wall, human cannonball David Smith Sr., who holds the distance record for being shot into the air (201 feet, in 2002), is the first person whose launch by cannon over the U.S.-Mexico borderwall has been documented. Although it is illegal to enter the United States from Mexico except at an official port of entry, U.S. Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar granted Smith permission to cross in this unconventional fashion. So, in 2005, with passport in hand (which he waved to the crowd before blasting off from Tijuana, Mexico), he sailed over the wall and landed squarely in a large net awaiting him in San Diego, California.

When Smith was asked why he did it, his reply was simple: “I did it for the money—I get paid!”

Selections from ‘Recuerdos’ were read aloud by the author to UC Press staff earlier this spring (watch a short video from that talk), and we’ll be sharing excerpts here in the coming weeks.

Learn more in recent features on Borderwall as Architecture in The Architectural RecordThe London Review of Books, The New York Times, and a podcast produced by UC Berkeley’s Berkeley News.


Ronald Rael is Associate Professor in the departments of Architecture and Art Practice at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Earth Architecture, a history of building with earth in the modern era that exemplifies new, creative uses of the oldest building material on the planet. The Museum of Modern Art and the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum have recognized his work, and in 2014 his creative practice, Rael San Fratello, was named an Emerging Voice by the Architectural League of New York.

 


Debunking Media Myths, Those Prominent Cases of Fake News

by W. Joseph Campbell, author of Getting It Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American Journalism

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The mainstream media’s recent angst and hand-wringing about a surge of “fake news” has tended to ignore that the media themselves have often been purveyors of bogus tales and dubious interpretations.

“Fake news” has plenty of antecedents in mainstream media — several cases of which are documented in my book, Getting It Wrong, a new, expanded edition of which was published recently.

The book examines and debunks media-driven myths, which are well-known stories about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as false or wildly exaggerated. Think of them as prominent cases of “fake news” that have masqueraded as a fact for years. Decades, even.

Continue reading “Debunking Media Myths, Those Prominent Cases of Fake News”


Smart Girls: Success, School, and the Myth of Post-Feminism

by Shauna Pomerantz, author of Smart Girls: Success, School, and the Myth of Post-Feminism with Rebecca Raby 

This guest post is published in advance of the American Sociological Association conference in Seattle. Check back every week for new posts through the end of the conference on August 23rd.

Over the last decade we have seen a lot of hand-wringing about girls thriving in school while boys fail, and consequent policy recommendations to shift classroom materials to better meet boys’ needs.  Various scholars have been critical of these generalizations and policy proposals. Given the extent of these debates, what does your book, Smart Girls, add to this conversation?

Various researchers and commentators have rebuffed the universalizing arguments that we have seen over the past ten years, arguments that point to ‘successful girls’ and ‘failing boys’ as evidence that we now live in a post-feminist era where girls thrive and we should worry about boys’ achievements. However, despite widespread critiques that complicate and contextualize the idea that girls are ‘taking over the world’, we continue to see news headlines and popularized books pitting girls and boys against each other, as if gender is a stand alone category disconnected from many other social issues. At the policy level, these concerns are shape school curricula and lead many to assume that we no longer need to worry about girls in school.

In the face of these generalized arguments, we wanted to talk more deeply and contextually about the lives of smart girls in schools today. We wanted rich data that got at the everyday challenges that diverse smart girls, and boys, negotiate in school. We wanted a book that was based in the North American context, and that would be accessible to many readers so that a wide range of teachers, parents and young people themselves could engage with our participants’ stories and reflect on the challenges that girls still face in spite of claims that feminism – and girls – have ‘won’. If girls are doing so well, we asked: why do some girls dumb down? And how do dynamics of gender and smartness continue to play out within peer cultures, especially when smartness does not always sit easily with popular forms of femininity, and in a context where gender inequality is certainly not over. We wanted to talk to smart girls about how they handle being labeled ‘nerd’ or ‘loner’, how they deal with the ‘Supergirl’ drive for perfection and how their negotiations of academic success and peer culture are shaped by ‘race’ and class. We also wanted to learn from smart boys about their experiences in school – and how their challenges are similar to, and different from, those of girls.

The end result is a book that foregrounds young people’s stories about different smart girls’ lives. We hope that these stories and our reflections on them will further shatter common and troubling generalizations about girls’ success that continue to inform educational policy.

In talking to many smart girls and boys, you suggest that it can be hard to be smart while also fitting into popular masculinity and femininity.  Why is it difficult to be both smart and popular?  And how is it different for girls than for boys?

With shows like The Big Bang Theory, it can feel like ‘geek chic’ is in and that popular peer culture has expanded to make room for bookishness. And for some of the young people we talked to, being smart was indeed ‘in’, particularly if they were certain kinds of girls, with supportive groups of friends and going to inclusive schools. But we also heard many stories that indicated a continuing tension between popularity and academics.

Across a variety of schools, girls carefully negotiated their academic identities and many felt that often they had to choose: play down their smartness in order to be attractive (especially to boys) and popular, or sacrifice popularity in order to thrive academically. Girls sometimes found they could also balance out their smartness by being conventionally pretty and nice. Boys also faced challenges: while girls would downplay their smartness, boys did not want to be seen as trying too hard and would counter their studiousness by being funny and athletic. We noticed that girls were often rewarded for how they looked, and for being passive and demure, while boys were more likely to be rewarded for being active subjects who were extroverted, athletic and funny, patterns that reflect and reproduce gender inequality.

While post-feminism posits that we are now beyond sexism, numerous forces, statistics and incidents tell us otherwise. Dominant and hierarchical gender practices endure across society and in the school, which is reflected in much of our data. At the same time, post-feminism thrives as a discourse: in many of the interviews where young people talked about experiencing or noticing gender inequality, they also stated that gender inequality did not exist.

Other scholars have argued that a focus on ‘successful girls’ versus ‘failing boys’ neglects to consider other important social divisions around things like class and ‘race’. Is this something that you found too?

Yes, many researchers have suggested that there is far greater academic diversity within gender categories than across them and that this diversity is linked to significant class and ‘race’ inequalities that permeate North American society. In our book we highlight how class and ‘race’ were powerful forces in the lives of our participants. Class was a significant source of advantage for many of the young people we talked to, often in ways that they did not acknowledge. It shaped the school they were going to, the resources that supported their academic success, and the resources to help them negotiate gendered peer cultures. Class was also used to bolster privilege and exclude others, a pattern that was particularly evident to our working-class participants.

Similarly, ‘race’ emerged as a central feature in definitions of academic success, particularly in relation to the problematic stereotype of the ‘smart Asian’. This stereotype was used to reproduce the narrow idea that being ‘too smart’ is not only anti-social, but also the mark of a cultural outsider.


Shauna Pomerantz is Associate Professor of Child and Youth Studies at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. She is the author of Girls, Style and School Identities: Dressing the Part and the coauthor of Girl Power: Girls Reinventing Girlhood.