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Down to earth views of Earth Day 2019

The annual Earth Day observance in 2019 coincided with plenty of reminders about the power of nature and the need to carefully manage our resources.

It was clear for the entire first half of spring. An abundance of snow in my backyard somehow did its disappearing act within a span of two weeks. Meanwhile Marshall’s city street crews were busy pushing back snowbanks to make paths for water to get from point A (edges of the snowbanks) to point B (storm drains).

Winter was still not over. A spring snowstorm brought approximately another foot of snow, along with some very unusual everyday natural happenings.

A large robin in search of food refused to give up trying to get through my patio door. I guess it thought somehow the glass might disappear if it kept looking for any possible way to get to the indoor greenery. It had no way of knowing that the plants are artificial.

Several times I witnessed a game of cat and mouse around my backyard bird feeder. One or two blackbirds were like cats, making it clear that they were higher on the food chain. Smaller, more colorful birds kept a safe distance as they edged close enough to capture small samples of seeds that blackbirds left on the ground.

A few days later I began to see the effects of late season snow in much wider proportions.

I’d already seen the Minnesota River next to downtown Granite Falls several days prior to when it was predicted to reach flood stage. At that point even the alleyway between the river and downtown buildings was still high and dry.

It was much different shortly after the river reached its crest. Floodwater inundated the basements of downtown buildings on the side next to the river. Some of the steps at Lende Plaza were submerged and roped off with yellow caution tape. Murals painted on concrete walls in conjunction with long range plans for a downtown building next to the plaza were partly below the water level.

On the plus side, it was clear that water was receding based on how the trunks of several trees were visible in the sunlight.

It was almost like deja vu, almost like turning back the clock to 1997. That year in April I counted seven plaza steps that still hadn’t been overtaken by the river. By the time I checked again later, the seventh step had disappeared.

This time there wasn’t any need to be warned about when the Minnesota Highway 23 bridge would be closed. The 2019 flood level wasn’t high enough to close it, but was enough to close both Minnesota Highway 67 and parts of U.S. Highway 212.

Damage estimates clearly show that flood control improvements since 1997 helped to reduce Granite Falls and Montevideo area flood repair expenses. They were good investments.

Last but definitely not least, I saw the effects of natural forces on Easter weekend while visiting relatives near Omaha, Nebraska.

My older niece drove me to places near Elkhorn and Waterloo in western Douglas County, which includes the city of Omaha. Waterloo was the same destination for a group of Marshall volunteers who helped with flood clean-up.

What remains after the flood doesn’t have nearly the visual shock impact as what could be seen on worldwide news media and can still be viewed through basic Internet searches. My professional education coordinator experiences for soil and water conservation districts told me, however, that the high water is only the first chapter in a long process of getting everything back to pre-flood circumstances.

Places with the deepest silt deposits look like small gravel mines (reflecting attempts to clear away some of the natural flood debris). The Missouri River itself — viewed from an older bridge between Missouri Valley, Iowa, and Blair, Nebraska — was at by far the highest level I’ve ever witnessed. It was high enough to envision what the same view must have been a month ago.

The most encouraging thing I saw was the emerged grass at a complex of soccer fields, tall enough and thick enough to be seen from the road. It shows that sooner or later nature can correct itself.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that research into nature’s long term unassisted self-restoration processes, known as “natural succession,” often take more than 100 years after a cataclysm. Examples can include major floods, forest fires, oil slicks or nuclear reactor meltdowns.

That’s too high of a price to pay if it’s possible to prevent environmental damage. When it’s not, as it wasn’t with either Minnesota’s 2019 flood activity or the far greater flood impacts in eastern Nebraska, we see the value of cost-effective conservation practices.

In agricultural parts of the Midwest, they help to keep soil where it belongs and to hold back water in shallow wetlands helpful to both plant and wildlife habitat. Very often that happens with the full support of landowners willing to invest some their own money in cost-share contracts.

It’s all about trying to leave planet Earth at least as good as we found it, hopefully even better. It’s something to think about on Earth Day and every day.

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