Iowa Is Sinking


New York-based photographer Ryan Plett grew up in Davenport, Iowa—a small town of over 50 parks, located along the Mississippi River, that played an important role in his childhood. But climate change has since transformed the “green city”; the place he once called home. Without flood walls to protect its banks, Davenport faces the question of reshaping its riverfront or pushing its problems downstream.

Davenport, Iowa is the largest city located on the Mississippi river without a flood wall to protect its banks. I spent my youth in the city and surrounding fields, and for the past few years, have observed how quickly climate change and modernization has affected the river and farmland throughout the Midwest.


Growing up in Davenport, the Mississippi River was always a focal point of activity and culture. Baseball games, fireworks, blues festivals, and road races on the riverfront were all part of summer. Davenport has always maintained the idea of leveraging the riverfront as an asset rather than altering the land for protection from the naturally occurring flooding. As a young kid experiencing the Great Flood of 1993, which was at the time considered a once in a century flood, entire cities and summers were put on hold—sandbagging for local businesses and homes, no drinking water except Budweiser-donated canned water, and what seemed like endless work around maintaining levees along the river.

Flooded stop sign by Ryan Plett

Now, less than 30 years later, disastrous seasonal flooding is a normal occurrence with changing weather patterns and more substantial flood walls being built upstream. In May, 2019, Iowa had its wettest month on record—along with the wettest 12-month period since the records started in 1895. By June, 2019, at least one million acres of land in the Midwest were flooded with over $1.5 billion in damages in the state of Iowa alone. From water pollution and chemical runoff in cities, to the inability to plant farm ground and loss of livestock pasture, the flooding has created a dangerous cycle in rural and urban areas alike.


Cities like Davenport and others along the Mississippi are now faced with the constant question of building flood walls and pushing the problem downstream or leaving nature alone (and at risk). These protective walls are incredibly expensive; estimates for constructing one wall in Davenport was over $175 million. Reshaping the riverfront can displace homes, businesses, and farms—not to mention a loss of cultural hubs.


Living in New York City and communicating with my family back home in the Midwest, I’m often reminded how easily people forget about the places their food comes from and who creates it. News coverage on the coasts is minimal at best and national articles showed singular images of water in “flyover states” most people have never visited or thought about. Documenting these flood seasons have become my way to shed light on our changing planet and the effect it has on where we come from.

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Iowa Is Sinking


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