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A human link to Midwest floods?

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Philip Carlson/Quincy Herald-Whig/AP

(Read caption) Main Street, LaGrange, Mo., Sat., June 21, 2008.

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Some experts are saying that irresponsible land use, and possibly human-induced climate change, are to blame for the severity of floods that have devastated the Upper Midwest this month.

Over the past century, farmers have drained wetlands, whose grasses have deep roots that help absorb water, and replaced them with profitable fields of corn and soybeans, plants with shallow root systems. Farms have also installed underground drainage systems, accelerating the amount of water that runs off into streams and rivers.

On top of that, previous rains had left the soil saturated, and much of the farmland was bare, as farmers had delayed their planting because of the unusually cold spring.

So when the skies opened up over the Midwest in late May and early June, the water had nowhere to go but into the streets, businesses, and homes.

Reuters quotes Kevin Baskins, a spokesman with Iowa's Department of Natural Resources, who says that the Hawkeye State – whose eastern regions have seen the worst of the flooding – was a very different place before settlers arrived:

"Pre-settlement, most of Iowa was under water, a shallow wetland type of system. That landscape has been altered for production purposes so the hydrology of the area has changed radically in the last century-and-a-half... With civilization, there come trade-offs. There are cases like this when you realize that the river is much more powerful than we humans are and there are some places that we have to give back to nature."

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