Let’s Talk (with) Culverts

Information on our Summer 2020 internships to come soon. You can review Summer 2019 internship details here.   

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This is a twelve-inch-wide culvert pipe. I point it out to you only because I needed it pointed out to me, by Chris Ward, the city administrator of the town of Vinton, Iowa. I needed it pointed out to me because culvert pipes (twelve-inch or otherwise) are designed and put in place so as not to be seen—so as to channel water beneath roads and sidewalks and on its way to the next largest creek, stream, or river. This is what infrastructure (“infra-” meaning “under” or “below”) does. It works beneath the surface (and sometimes above our heads), in our walls and floors, enabling certain ways of life and obstructing others.

We perhaps most often notice infrastructure when it breaks down or stops working. Despite cries of our “crumbling infrastructure,” we feel this crumbling most immediately when a pothole shakes a vehicle we’re in, the power goes out, or our sewers back up. And while these breakdowns sometimes are the result of degradation over time, they also occur when disaster strikes.

Such was the case in Vinton, a town of just over 5,000 residents on the south bank of the Cedar River, in the historic 2008 floods that swept eastern Iowa. Despite the sandbagging efforts of community members and the National Guard, floodwaters that peaked at 24.7 feet flooded the town’s fire station, while groundwater swelling up from below flooded the power plant and electric distribution building—which sit right on the bank of the Cedar—cutting off electricity for much of town. In addition to these infrastructural impacts, dozens of homes near the river were flooded. Twenty-nine residential buildings would eventually be bought-out by FEMA. Some of these lots are now empty, and some have turned into green community spaces and youth gardens—an example of one of Vinton’s goals to become more flood “resilient.”

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Vinton in relation to Iowa City and Cedar Rapids

Vinton has undertaken quite a number of measures to improve their flood resilience after the 2008 flood. The town has acquired HESCO barriers, which can be set up more quickly and can prove sturdier than piles of sandbags (though the barriers, too, can fail, as we saw in Davenport and Burlington this past spring). They have elevated their electric distribution equipment out of the building’s basement to avoid another power loss. Most recently, the town has begun the process of relocating the fire station and ambulance garages further away from the Cedar River and Hinkle Creek, to a more elevated site where there is also less risk of being cut off from large areas of town by flood waters.

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The beginnings of a story map I’m working on to recount Vinton’s past, present, and future flood resilience efforts. The pins here mark the community garden (top), the relocated emergency services (middle), and the stormwater retention basin (bottom).

Work is also underway to construct a stormwater retention basin on the southern edge of town to hold back stormwater flowing into town from the rolling agricultural fields that surround the town. Just as it was the upswell of groundwater, rather than the intrusion of floodwater from the Cedar, that inundated the power plant, here, too, we can see the multiple causes of flood issues in Vinton. When cropland is tiled to get rainwater off the fields as quickly as possible, that rainwater has to flow somewhere. In this case, that “somewhere” is the unnamed tributary to Mud Creek that cuts sharply across the south edge of town, following a straight ditch past the high school until it reaches the twelve-inch-wide culvert. Yes, that culvert.

We now have to ask that culvert all sorts of questions about itself. “Are you the right size? Is it possible you might not be letting enough water through quickly enough? We suspect you might be in part responsible for the flooding in one of our neighborhoods. If so, might we upgrade you? Swap you out with a larger family member?”

This is just one—albeit entirely fictional—conversation to be had about and with Vinton’s infrastructure. During my first four weeks working with Iowa Valley Resource Conservation & Development as their Flood Resilience Community Engagement Intern, I’ve been heartened to see how many community leaders are willing to engage, question, and rethink the town’s infrastructure and its relationship to the environment. They recognize that now is the time to have these conversations about adapting to the challenges of increased flooding events that will come hand-in-hand with the more intense rainfall events brought on by a changing climate. Over the coming weeks I’ll be working to engage with economically vulnerable residents to listen and learn from their flood experiences in an effort to include their voices in both the history of floods in Vinton and the ongoing plans to improve the town’s resilience. While we might be quick to think of resilience as a return to a prior state (in this case, before the ’08 flood), Vinton can help us see the need to change and adapt in order to survive.