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More corn or fewer floods? We have a choice to make

Dr. Schneiders

By Robert Kelley Schneiders, PH.D.

Neither God, nor freak rain events, or the tiny piping plover caused the Missouri River flood of 2011.  Rather, humans, and their ignorance, greed, and hubris, brought the floodwaters down upon the residents of the Missouri Valley.
The Army Corps deserves much of the blame for the flood.  The Army kept the Montana and Dakota reservoirs high when the impoundments should have been low.  Consequently, the reservoirs did not have enough storage space to capture the descending super flood.  To prevent the dams from being overtopped and washed away, the Army released unprecedented amounts of water from Gavin’s Point Dam.
In the twentieth century, military engineers built a narrow, flood-prone navigation channel from Ponca to the river’s mouth.  That artificial channel did not possess the carrying capacity to safely haul away high flows.  When the flood entered the navigation channel, the Missouri quickly rose above its manmade banks and spread its murky waters across the lowlands.
After the Dakota dams went online in the 1950s and 1960s, the Army (confident the dams would halt all future floods) encouraged industrial, agricultural, and suburban development in the river’s former floodplain.  In 2011, valley residents paid the price for that earlier over-confidence. Countless homes, roads, and farms sank beneath the surging river.
And yet, the Army is not solely to blame for last year’s disaster.  Missouri basin farmers also share much of the responsibility for the deluge.  For instance, since the early 2000s, farmers in the Missouri basin’s 10 states have converted thousands of square miles of Conservation Reserve Program land to corn, soybeans, and wheat.  According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, CRP acres preserve the soil from erosion, filter and purify agricultural runoff, and prevent downstream flooding.  Yet, in two years alone (2007 and 2008), farmers in Montana and the two Dakotas destroyed 2,023 square miles of water absorbing CRP land.  The loss of CRP land led to record runoff amounts, record reservoir levels, and a record discharge rate from Gavin’s Point Dam.
Since the 1950s, farmers have drained the Missouri Valley’s wetlands and laser-leveled the valley’s undulations in order to plant more corn.  These actions eliminated the lower valley’s ability to naturally and safely store floodwater.  By the 1970s, vast segments of the lower valley resembled a flat, smooth tabletop.  When high flows came barreling down the river last June, there existed few side channels, depressions, or oxbow lakes to absorb the floodwater, slow its velocity, and lower the river’s crest.  Consequently, the Missouri pushed out across the bottomlands, causing damage to farmland and infrastructure located as far as 10 miles from the main channel.
In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, valley farmers employed bulldozers and buzz saws to fell the valley’s remnant forests of cottonwood, ash, and hickory.  Deforestation occurred so rapidly and so thoroughly that Neil Heiser of the Woodbury County (Iowa) Conservation Board noted in 1980 that he “did not know of a single 40-acre or more patch of native bottom timber left on private land anywhere along the Iowa side of the Missouri between Sioux City and Omaha.” The farmers knocked the trees down to grow even more corn.
Streamside forest tracts had acted as miniature reservoirs, holding rainwater and snowmelt in their leaves, branches, trunks, and roots.  The trees also stabilized the Missouri’s banks against strong, fast currents.  But in 2011, the forests were not there to deflect the Missouri’s erosive waters, so the river devastated agricultural lands.
Reestablishing the lower valley’s forest stands, wetlands, side channels, and oxbow lakes, and restoring CRP acres throughout the Missouri basin, offers the public long-term, effective, and inexpensive methods for reducing the flood threat along the Missouri River.
Yet, Missouri basin farmers want to destroy thousands of square miles of the basin’s remaining CRP land in the years ahead, even though such a policy will contribute to future flooding.  Riverfront farmers also reject any policy that would enhance the lower valley’s flood storage capacity by dismantling the navigation channel, reopening side channels, and reconnecting the river to its former floodplain.  With corn at record prices, they want the valley brimming with corn even if such a blatantly self-interested policy puts the entire valley at risk of another super flood.
The question now before the public is whether or not we want more corn or fewer floods?

Dr. Schneiders is the author of two books: “Unruly River: Two Centuries of Change Along the Missouri” and “Big Sky Rivers: The Yellowstone and Upper Missouri”. An Iowa native who grew up a half mile from the Missouri River, he received a doctor’s degree in U.S. agricultural history and rural studies from Iowa State University He is the founder and owner of Eco In the Know.

One Response to More corn or fewer floods? We have a choice to make

  1. Robert D. Smith

    February 3, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    Dr. Schneiders,
    Your article in the Richmond Daily News was right on target. I have felt for years that the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers need to have areas set aside for flood waters to go when the rivers get high. Just like a hot water heater needs safety valves, rivers do too. It is a good thing that the Atchafalya Basin was available or New Orleans would have been in big trouble.
    robert D. Smith

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