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Stu Levitan welcomes William S. Becker, executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project and author of, The Creeks Will Rise: People Coexisting With Floods, from the good people at Chicago Review Press.
Floods are a fact of life, and have been that way forever. Almost every culture around the world has a creation myth that features a flood. Today, they remain a necessary part of nature, renewing the soil, creating new habitats. But while floods are natural, flood damages are not – they are solely the responsibility of humankind. And it’s a massive responsibility – thanks to our decades of building in floodplains, floods are also the most frequent and most expensive type of weather disaster in the United States, accounting for 90 percent of our natural disasters.
From 1980 to 2019, the United States suffered 32 billion-dollar floods, averaging about $5 billion in flood damages a year, part of the $1.6 trillion in weather-related damages during that time. During that period, the Kickapoo River in southwest Wisconsin suffered four floods, after seven between 1907 and 1978. And even though none of them billion-$, the people of the valley had had enough after the flood of 1935, and in 1937 asked Washington for help. It finally came in 1962, authorization for a dam on the upper river, just below La Farge –designed not only to stop floods, but also to create an income-generating recreation area.
And those disasters are only going to get worse, as the climate crisis produces ever-more intense weather events and the aging infrastructure of 92,000 dams and 30,000 miles of levees fails at an ever-increasing rate. According to the University of Bristol 43 million Americans, and $ 1.2 trillion in assets are currently at risk of floods in the lower forty-eight states. And if we make it to the next century, analysts expect that 2.5 million properties worth more than $ 1 trillion will experience chronic flooding and thirty cities to be underwater.
How and why we need to change our national water policy from trying to control floods to avoiding them is the business that occupies Bill Becker in this book that is both frightening and inspiring. It is a book he is uniquely qualified to write, as an expert in alternative energy, and one of the key figures in the successful effort in the late seventies to oppose that dam across the upper Kickapoo and get the village of Soldiers Grove to move its business district out of the floodplain and onto higher ground.
After helping move SD, he moved on to become became Counselor to the Administrator, Small Business Administration, spent 12 years as Regional Director and Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary U.S. Department of Energy, founded and was co-director of The Future We Want, and since 2011 has been a Senior Fellow at Natural Capitalism Solutions, a non-profit founded by environmentalist and author Hunter Lovins. But before all that, and critical to his narrative, he was a photo-journalist, first for the US Army in Vietnam in the mid-sixties, later for the Associated Press in Madison, but most critically with the Kickapoo Scout in Soldiers Grove.
It is a pleasure to welcome to Madison Book Beat, Bill Becker.