Flooding misery lingers for farmers
This week on Field Notes, we return to the floodplain in southeast Missouri, and compare efforts there to developments in Iowa, where farmland flooded a year ago.
In Mississippi and New Madrid counties in Missouri, the flood waters have finally receded, and the Mississippi River has stayed low enough to allow some farmers to plant late soybeans. Though, as Harvest Public Media’s Kathleen Masterson tells us on this episode, that’s not been the case in Jackson County, Iowa, where natural levee breaks along the Maquoketa River have left farmland exposed to flooding for the last year.
Our guests this week are Masterson, U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, and Mississippi County, Mo., farmer Tammi Hutcheson.
Top of mind for Missouri farmers and Rep. Emerson is securing a firm repair date and funding for the three open levee sites that only have temporary berms right now. Hutcheson told me she doesn’t think the quick fix would do much if the river rose a few feet in the coming weeks, and she’s also worried about an early frost come fall, as she and others had to wait a month to plant soybeans.
Another roadblock to farming freedom is the rebuilding timeline itself. In the last two months, the project was delayed first by a bizarre disocovery. Harvest Public Media editor Donna Vestal had this updateon bone fragments being unearthed. Then, an environmental impact study was ordered for the third blast site near a heavily wooded state park. Emerson said this should be finished by the end of summer.
And then there’s the regenerative wetlands argument. Right now, Emerson said, the farmers’ biggest competing interest are environmental groups that say the farmland is better off as it used to be -- open wetland mixed with an unbridled Mississippi River.
In the Great Flood of 1993, the song was the same.
After I returned from southeast Missouri back in May, William Allen, a colleague and former science writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, sent me a story he wrote during the Great Flood. Take a look at this excerpt from the pro-wetland point of view. For farmers like Tammi Hutcheson whose livelihood is on the line, it’s natural to scramble for renewed farmland, but the question is the same as it was in 1993, and in 1927. Does nature agree with the way agriculturalists manage the land along the Mississippi?
In a nutshell, a river has its own complex set of pressure-release valves and sponges. These include wetlands, chutes, backwaters and side channels.
The natural river also has a forgiving flood plain, a corridor over which it carries floodwater. The water, as needed, can expand like a balloon over the flood plain.
"It's long been said that the river giveth and the river taketh away," said Norm Stucky, a biologist with the Missouri Conservation Department in Jefferson City.
"In a natural, unaltered stream, while the river was eroding or taking away in one place, it was putting back someplace else." In other words, it created those wetlands, backwaters and other features. With such features in place, water spreads with less violence. "Man has come along and attempted to control the river," he said. "Generally, the natural function of the river to give has been removed. Now we have a situation where the river only taketh away."
It's no coincidence that the states hardest hit by the Great Flood of 1993 are the ones that all but eliminated their wetlands as Midwesterners moved to intensive farming and engineers channelized and leveed the great rivers.
Over the past century and a half, Missouri, Illinois and Iowa led the pack of the lower 48 states that lost more than half its wetlands, said Phil Covington. Covington is a biologist at the Missouri Conservation Department's Ted Shanks Conservation Area, north of Louisiana, Mo.
"When you take that many wetlands away, you have floods like this," Covington said.
Levee systems along many parts of the river are constantly rising to meet the demand of flood protection.