Notes from the Field, June 18, 2011, Sodden Timber Poses Threats

Sioux City, Iowa.  The media outlets in Siouxland are publicizing the recent arrival of the Nebraska State Patrol’s SWAT Team at South Sioux City, Nebraska.  Apparently, the highly-trained, para-military men are there to patrol and protect the levee on the northeast side of town.  I saw three of the elite troopers today at a coffee house in Sioux City.  They looked like they were ready for combat.  With their skin-tight haircuts, black combat fatigues, big handguns holstered to their sides, and aggressive “FU” facial expressions, I seriously feared for the gophers and squirrels that might try to burrow into the South City levee.  Armed with high-powered sniper rifles and machine guns, the SWAT Team possesses the firepower to pulverize any furry, four-legged critter that dares to come within a 100 yards of the levee.  South Sioux City residents can now breath a sigh of relief – the SWAT Team is in town.Large logs have become a common sight in the Missouri’s thalweg.  For the first time in decades, the river is flowing into forest lands that had once been distant from the river’s banks.  Inside those timber tracts, the Missouri is picking-up the dead fall and carting it off downstream.  Timbered areas that have not been inundated since 1952 are presently being swept clean by the river.  All of the logs and miscellaneous debris in the channel will cause problems for the Army’s channelization structures and levees.  In the fast-moving floodwaters, the large, heavy logs act as battering rams, knocking down the wooden piles or puncturing holes in levees.  The threat to human constructs in the valley from logs will only increase in the weeks and months ahead.  Trees cannot survive long-term submersion; and this flood is going to last into August.  As the summer progresses, more and more trees will die and topple into the river.  Those trees will then become torpedoes aimed at the Army’s works.

There is an upside to having trees deposited in the river.  The downed trees are a food source for zooplankton (tiny micro-organisms) that feed on saturated leaves, bark, and wood.  Fish in-turn eat the zooplankton.  Thus, fallen trees are an important component of the river’s food chain.  Another way to perceive this issue is to consider the river and all of the life in and around it as one large living system.  Like all organisms, the river must eat to survive.  For thousands of years, the Missouri ate away at its banks, dropping trees into its channel.  It also reached out across the land with liquid tentacles during its annual floods, pulling cottonwood, ash, and maple trees into its gaping waters.  The Army’s dams and riprap kept the river from feeding itself and supporting life.  In an interesting twist, the Army has actually referred to the water in the river south of Gavin’s Point Dam as ‘hungry water.”  The Army gave the water that name not because it recognized the importance of the river’s meandering and flooding to its ecological health.  Rather, it called it “hungry water” because it is clear, sediment-free, highly erosive water.  The Missouri is once more devouring forest tracts and putting logs into its channel, which poses risks for human constructs, but which is a positive for life below the river’s dark surface.

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