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Water Is Wide: Women, Climate Change and the Iowa River

Liz Behlke is a junior at the University of Iowa, majoring in English and Sustainability. This essay appears as part of the Climate Narrative Project, a special media arts initiative in the Office of Sustainability.

Act I: The Flood

When my parents told me I was born during the 1993 flood of Iowa City, I imagined my dad braving harsh winds and rain in a tiny rowboat, furiously cranking the oars down Burlington Street just to get my pregnant mother to the hospital in time. Then I came wailing into the world.

When I was little, I was desperate for a flood. I had this idea to turn my entire neighborhood into one big swimming pool. I’d do a cannonball off my roof and swim across the street to my best friend’s house and we’d spend the day in the water. I had big plans for the swing set in my front yard that was equipped with three swings and one yellow slide. The basketball hoop in my driveway would come into play as well. If I could convince my next-door neighbors to leave the trampoline out in the flood our neighborhood would basically be a water park.

I loved stomping around in the puddles when it rained, staining my legs with dried brown dribbles and dodging worms on the sidewalk, but a full-blown flood would be even better. Because what would happen when the water went away? Everything would dry up and go back to normal! The amount of devastation a flood can do didn’t occur to me at this age. I wouldn’t see this devastation until the flood of 2008.

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The Iowa River flooded from early June to early July that year. It crested at 31.5 feet, a new record, flooding up to twenty University of Iowa buildings, most of which were in the art department. More than $300 million worth of art owned by the university was moved in preparation for the flooding. The university shut down its main source of power in order to avoid structural damage. Summer courses were postponed until further notice and Mayflower Hall was evacuated. Only the Burlington Street Bridge remained open. Regenia Bailey, the mayor of Iowa City at the time, issued a curfew restricting unauthorized persons from being within 100 feet of flooded areas between 8:30 p.m. and 6 a.m.

TV screens showed helicopter footage of little houses in Cedar Rapids with dirty river water up to the doorknobs. KCRG TV 9 News at 10 was the anthem of that summer and head anchors Bruce Aune and Beth Malicki were our river guides.

This footage inspired Julie Tallman to get involved. Tallman, a development regulation specialist for Iowa City, tells me over the phone that her interest in the Iowa River peaked during the summer of 2008.

“Something that wasn’t supposed to happen, happened,” Tallman states. “One hundred year flood, 500 year flood, those are false terms.”

According to the U.S. Geological Survey website, a 100 year flood is a flood that typically has a one percent chance of occurring in any given year, while a 500 year flood has a .2 percent chance.

“The river is so powerful and yet so vulnerable to the activities we allow around it,” Tallman says. “We need to think more cautiously and carefully—we must create awareness for the risk we run.”

I turned 15 the summer of 2008. I spent more time at my best friend Heidi’s house than my own, which was located just in between Solon and Iowa City, close to civilization but just far enough out for big yards and riding lawnmowers. We spent days switching back and forth between lying by her pool and four wheeling around her neighborhood. At night we watched scary movies and ate cool ranch Doritos. We’d wait for her mom to come down to the basement, squinty eyed and cranky, to tell us we were being too loud but this just sent us further into hysterics. I was at Heidi’s house when our friends invited us to sandbag the water treatment plant the following morning.

I remember the water treatment plant being out in the middle of nowhere with large but squat tan structures placed throughout the grounds. The scene vaguely reminded me of the sand people and their habitat from Star Wars. The water was already shin deep, but had not yet flooded the buildings. A loud woman wearing sunglasses directed us towards one of many assembly lines. All over, people were in line passing sandbags from a pile to make a wall against the buildings. The sun was bright and hot and the water soaking into my skin smelled bad. We spent the day in the assembly lines, stopping to take the occasional break and to eat lunch from the truck that brought free McDonald’s for everyone.

“I’m gonna eat so much McDonald’s that I throw up,” my friend Tom said. Heidi and I watched in a mixture of amusement and disgust as he shoved burger after burger into his mouth.

After lunch, beads of sweat formed on my forehead as I struggled to keep the sandbags from slipping out of my grasp. The middle-aged woman passing them to me dumped them into my arms like spilling bags of groceries. I began to feel something thicker than water form around my right leg and looked down. Vomit. I looked towards Tom, opposite the lady on my other side. He was doubled over and wiping his mouth with the bottom of his shirt when he looked up at me.

“Told ya.”

Act II: Women, Water, Land and Legacy

The drought of 2012 was the worst in Iowa’s recorded history and was followed by a large amount of rainfall. Being in the Midwest, agricultural runoff was essentially unavoidable—or so we’re told. This lead to a rise in nitrate levels in our water, which is detrimental to human health. Studies have found that the higher the nitrate level, the more likely newborns are to have birth defects. High nitrate levels can lead to methemoglobinemia, a blood disorder in which the level of methemoglobin rises, making it more difficult for oxygen to bind in blood. This leads to red cells’ reduced ability to release oxygen to tissues.

In other words, your body is not getting the oxygen it needs. Through the Safe Drinking Water Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set a standard of 10 milligrams of nitrates per liter of water. In a 2007 study conducted by scientists at the University of Georgia, 12 impregnated cows were placed in a high nitrate area and another eight impregnated cows were placed in a low nitrate area. Ten out of the 12 fetuses from the high nitrate area died, while only one out of eight died from the low nitrate area. The aborted fetuses were indicative of tissue anoxia, which is a symptom of methemoglobinemia. Other effects included a mummified fetus, lesions on the mother’s cervix, uterus, and placenta, and maternal death.

“What was it like being pregnant during a flood?” I ask my mom one day. We’re at the kitchen table, where I am doing homework and she is doing bills.

“I don’t know. The same as before? Except normally they have you sit in this tub to sort of heal things after you give birth, but water supply was limited so I couldn’t do that after you came out,” she replies. I wondered what the conditions were like for women in different areas of Iowa.

This spring, I discovered Women, Land and Legacy, an organization working to reach women in agricultural areas throughout Iowa. It involves government, nonprofit and faith based organizations. Women involved in agriculture meet monthly to discuss general interests and concerns with farmland. It is a way for women to develop a local network with other women of agriculture. Divided into three areas, the third group in Women, Land and Legacy interested me most; The Inheritors: those who receive land through the death of a husband or parents.

My stepmom Donna received ownership of her farm in West Branch from her late first husband. The Hemingway Farm has been around since the 1800s, and has not left the family yet. The barn is the first visible structure on her land when my dad drives us down the winding road leading to the farmhouse in his big Toyota truck.

“You know I’m always looking for some help out here. I’m gonna put you to work,” he says.

“What type of work?” I ask, wary of where this is going.

“The type that’ll put callous’ on your hands.”

“Yeah… I’m more of an indoor girl.”

After I said this I realized that though I may paint my nails instead of shuck corn, agricultural activities eventually affect me and everyone else in the city. There is chemical runoff from farms into the river that I—we all—drink water from. I wondered what sort of role women—outdoor girls if you will, had in this.

Act III: Old Woman River

I decided to explore the relationship between women and the river, and Carol Sweeting was the person to tell me about it. She spoke quickly to me over the phone and I struggled to write down all the information she threw at me while she drove home from work. I heard the highway in the background almost as clearly as I heard the passion in her voice. As the Department of Public Works volunteer coordinator, she had the opportunity to work with many Iowa City community members during the summer of 2008, most of whom were women.

“Every woman gave every minute to that river,” Sweeting said. “Many of the organizations that were there were made up of women and lead by women.”

Sweeting’s words made me wonder, do we think about the role of women when we think about our natural resources, our land, our water? I tried to think of female characters, real or fictional, with an interest in the quality of rivers, oceans or water. I realized that while women and female authors have played a major role in the forefront of environmental literature, we rarely find female characters with their hands on the oars. Sure, Emily Dickinson wrote a lot about nature, Sacagawea guided Louis and Clark through the Western U.S., but have women been left behind like the undercurrents?

I returned to Carol Sweeting, the water woman of Iowa City. She made clear how many women are truly involved and why.

“For me, I get a feeling of accomplishment. Life and death begin with the river—it’s constantly changing, constantly evolving. People effect it, but they step over it and don’t look at it as important, but the truth is Iowa City wouldn’t be the same without it.”

Iowa City was established in 1839, and the University was founded only eight years later, flanking the banks of the Iowa River. In 1855, it became the first university to admit both men and women on an equal basis. The inaugural class included 124 students, 41 of whom were women.

The Iowa River is visible from where I sit in Barbara Eckstein’s office. Eckstein, an English professor at the university, has a lamp lit rather than the harsh fluorescent bulbs installed in the English Philosophy building. The soft lighting matches her voice as she tells me about the English course she taught on the story of water. Not many classes in the English department revolve around nature or sustainable efforts, but Eckstein thought it was important to bring these themes into play.

“The river is the spine of the university,” she says. “We walk over it, we drive over it, but we don’t pay very much attention to it. I’m very conscious of the quality of the water, and the reasons for the quality of the water—we’re all complicit in this—and I wanted us to pay more attention to it.”

But Eckstein doesn’t see the river as connecting to one gender over the other. She says we all need to recognize “the mesh” of humans and the river noting that, “the river is literally inside of our skins.”

“I think of the river as the remains of a much more complicated aquatic network,” she says. “Like the roots of prairie plants literally underground still there after all this time. I think we need to think hard about the value of bringing it back to the surface."

People often ask me what its like growing up in a college town, and I never know what to say. I only know that my experience as a student in Iowa City is different than my experience growing up here. Just because my location hasn’t changed doesn’t mean that my identity hasn’t. Even the river is different. It flows down the center, bringing in new water, twigs, fish, life through our city. Both the way we view the river and the way we view women have changed over the years. Levels of involvement and interest have fluxuated like the height of the river.

Perhaps before we establish that there is a relationship between women and the river, we must first explore what our own personal connection to it is. What is our story and how can we tell it? I grew up a child of the river, and perhaps one day will transform into a mother of the river. Knowledge and awareness of the Iowa River has been passed down to me from women with deep connections to it. As I think of my own future, I cannot imagine being as connected as I am to the river and not spreading this knowledge and awareness to others. As the web of connectedness between women grows, we can look to the future, where perhaps mothers will not need to worry how drinking water effects the health of their children, where women farmers will be equally represented in the world of agriculture, and where we will realize our own impact and connection to the river. The story of women and the river starts out as a general one, but our own personal narratives connect us and weave us in like the creeks that stem from the river spread throughout Iowa.

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