A Watershed Woman: Connie Mutel


Photo by Tim Schoon.

IT’S EASY to sum up Connie Mutel’s complexity. Simply put, she’s a renaissance woman.

Tucked away in her office in the IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering Institute’s archives, Mutel enjoys the hundreds of years of history and scientific research at her fingertips.

But she’s the antithesis of what one might expect from a historian and archivist. She does more than just preserve and organize documents in a stuffy room. Outside of her office, she engages with Iowa’s natural landscape and with her pen, campaigns vigorously, yet eloquently to help protect it.

An eternal liberal arts student, Mutel dons many figurative hats atop her shortly-cropped hair. Beyond her archival duties at the IIHR, she is also an ecologist and accomplished writer and editor.

Mutel has edited the soon to be released A Watershed Year: Anatomy of the Iowa Floods of 2008 – her twelfth book – a diverse collection of essays that scientifically dissect the Iowa floods of 2008. The compilation includes works from many of Mutel’s colleagues at IIHR.

Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and CGRER member Keri Hornbuckle instantly said yes when she was asked to co-author a chapter of the book.

Hornbuckle says she felt privileged to work with Mutel.

“I can’t overstate the quality of her work…We are so lucky to have her here,” she says.

In clear prose, A Watershed Year explains the process of flooding throughout the Midwestern Corn Belt, examining the relationships between weather, floodplains and modern society.

Mutel hopes the book will clarify misunderstandings about the flood – namely the misnomer that the altered hydrology of the land was the sole contributor of the disaster.

“It was obvious that people had misconceptions about the flood,” she says. “Even though I’m a trained scientist, I had a lot of misconceptions myself.”

As her colleagues’ work details, the flooding process was much more complex; the huge amount of precipitation and runoff in June 2008 would have led to flooding in any conditions.

“But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look at the altered hydrology of the state,” Mutel says. “Iowa was, a mere 200 years ago, just a paradigm for flood resistance.”

If we can return to those conditions, she says, “we can certainly lessen [the flood’s] damage and impact upon us.”

A NATIVE of Madison, Wis., Mutel majored in music and played flute at Oberlin College before earning a master’s in plant ecology at the University of Colorado.

And in 1970, she came to Iowa with husband Robert Mutel, a UI professor of astronomy. Since then, the out-of-towner has become attached to Iowa’s landscape.

“I’m Iowan – I love it,” she says.

In her 2008 book, The Emerald Horizon: The History of Nature in Iowa – her favorite of the books she has produced, Mutel eloquently elaborates on this sentiment.

“Iowa still exudes beauty and life in abundance, along with wide-open spaces and connections to the earth and its elemental forces,” she writes.

But Mutel admits that studying and writing about ecology in the Union’s most human-altered state can be disheartening.

“If we eliminate biodiversity, we will have eliminated much of the way we view our world,” she says. “The truth is you’re going to see the world change a heck of a lot in the next 50 years.”

Environmental problems beget social and emotional problems, she says. “If we keep having other Haiti’s, we’re going to become emotionally exhausted.”

Mutel combats these feelings of doom and gloom with her genetics and positive upbringing – “a certain sense of joy” instilled in her by her parents, she says.

She is also encouraged by what she sees through her study of restoration ecology, the “spiritual” ability of nature to spring back up.

“It’s like [nature] is standing up and shouting, ‘Halleluiah, bring me more,’” she says.

IN THE FEW HOURS Mutel is not busy producing books or working in the archives, she also serves as the de facto voice of CGRER, writing and editing every newsletter and annual report it has released over the past 16 years. The task has been taxing, she said, but she enjoys it.

“I absolutely love CGRER and everything it works for,” she says.

And CGRER members appreciate her work.

“How many centers have a renowned author, editor, and scholar to write and catalyze ideas for them,” asks CGRER co-founder and co-director Jerry Schnoor.

“We are truly blessed to have someone of Connie’s caliber working with us.”

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