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Thursday, July 28, 2016

Flood of 2011 illuminates question of priorities

Posted Thursday, July 7, 2011, at 5:58 PM

If you gave a starving person a choice like "Do you want to do something fun, like play on a lake?" "Save an endangered species?" or "Eat a meal?" It is pretty obvious what they would choose. The same would be true if you gave a homeless person similar choices.

Of course, most of us are not starving and most of us do have a roof over our heads. In fact, most of us have forgotten the only three things we actually need to survive -- food, water and shelter.

After all, we have the most abundant and most affordable food supply in the world, paying just 7 percent of our take-home dollars on food.

But I'm afraid it all could end -- sooner rather than later -- unless we learn from the lessons of the past.

One of those lessons was in 1944 when the Pick-Sloan Flood Control Act was authorized to tame the muddy Missouri River. The Flood Control Act of 1944 refers to flood control and navigation as "primary" purposes.

Later court rulings backed this up.

The other uses were considered "secondary purposes." Those include: hydropower, water supply, water quality control, irrigation, recreation and fish and wildlife.

With World War II raging in Europe, and the Great Depression still painfully fresh in his memory, Glenn Sloan, one of the authors of the plan which created our current system of dams and lakes, said the key to managing the river and competing interests, was to consider the "greatest good for the greatest number" of people.

But now, 66 years later, we've forgotten that lesson -- and the original purpose of the project.

Instead, we have slowly but surely given the Army Corps of Engineers -- with the blessing of our legislators -- free reign to favor recreation and endangered species over flood control.

And the effects of that choice are being felt right now, here in Saline County and up and down the Missouri River, as farmers and townspeople are struggling to save their property from the Flood of 2011.

While many are arguing whether or not the Corps' mismanagement or the weather are to blame for the record water being released from basins in Montana and the Dakotas, I don't think it matters.

The truth is, no one -- not even the Corps -- disputes the main reason flooding is now wreaking havoc up and down the Missouri River basin.

You see, officially since 2004 (and unofficially before that) the "Master Manual," which is supposed to guide river management decisions, has changed significantly.

The Corps' budget has also reflected new priorities with more than 10 times more being spent on environmental studies and buying up farmland than on protecting people and property from flooding.

In other words, saving the piping plover, least tern and the ancient pallid sturgeon have become more important than saving someone's home or farm. It means some South Dakotans' dock or favorite fishing hole is more important than the 50 million Americans who are "food insecure" right now. Or the 5.2 million Americans who are "very food insecure," which means many nights they go to bed hungry.

As this change has taken place, high river levels and spring rises to benefit endangered species have meant bottomland farmers have been at least partially flooded for eight out of the past 10 years.

That is a complete switch from the previous 10 years, when flooding was present just two of those years.

Any time the river is above flood stage, farm ground not protected by levees floods with water, keeping those acres from producing any food.

As the river level stays high, water seeps up from the ground behind the levees, making even fields protected by levees too wet to get planted at all or causing damage to already growing crops.

It also keeps rain water from leaving the bottoms, eventually backing up drainage ditches onto farm ground. The longer the river stays up, the more crops are affected.

In 2010, the Missouri River was high for 78 straight days here.

Area bottomland farmers saw corn yields less than half of normal as the end result. Crop insurance (which is higher for bottomland) doesn't come close to making up the money farmers lose from drowned-out fields.

And it sure won't make up for the losses in our food supply.

Already this year, we have lost huge amounts of productive ground in the mid-west from levee breaks. According to the Corps, every non-federal levee in the Corps of Engineers PL84-99 rehabilitation program -- upstream of Kansas City -- has either overtopped or breached.

With high water expected through August, more are expected to fail, perhaps even in our county. In northern Missouri, Atchison County, which often rivals Saline County in producing the state's most abundant corn crop, has also lost huge amounts of farm ground.

Pictures found easily on the internet show the permanent damage flooding from the Mississippi River near New Madrid this spring has caused to 100,000 acres of some of the world's most productive farmland.

As one farmer pointed out, "Some people blame corn ethanol for causing food shortages and prices to rise, but look how many more bushels of corn and soybeans we'd have" if the bottomlands were allowed to produce to their full potential.

Some environmentalists (even some in the Corps) think levees should be removed permanently and the Missouri River should go back to its meandering past.

The Corps for several years, and even as recently as this May, has sent out letters offering to buy Missouri River bottomland to help with its "conservation" efforts.

Besides the obvious conflict of interest, it also shows how out of whack our priorities have gotten in this country.

As we lose more and more farmland to urban sprawl and our population keeps growing, how can we take any more land -- especially bottomland -- out of production?

The advantages to using bottomland to produce crops are practical as well as environmentally-friendly. It is naturally fertile, which means it needs fewer fertilizers than other farmland; It doesn't erode and with straight, flat rows, it takes less fossil-fuel consumption to farm.

In this world of supply and demand, any loss of farmland -- permanently or temporarily -- always trickles down to us, the consumer. It means we have to pay higher prices, especially for meat, eggs and milk -- the products which come from the livestock fed our corn and soybeans.

With 14.7 percent of our population going to bed hungry or even a little hungry each night, how can we in good conscious spend government money to make food less abundant and therefore more expensive?

There are other ways to save endangered species and there are certainly other places to fish and boat.

But we don't want to rely on other countries for our food supply, lest we end up with exploding watermelons and lead-laced cornflakes from China, along with a national security problem like we have never seen before.

We need to make sure we can continue to raise food right here in America, using our most productive, environmentally-friendly land to its full potential.

Hopefully the Flood of 2011 will serve as a running reminder that we have some tough choices to make in America if we are going to prosper.

In the tug of war, which the river has become, we need to see common sense prevail.

It's time to tell our legislators we know what's more important -- and that is keeping an abundant, affordable food supply right here in America.

Or as Sloan said so many years ago, we need to use the Missouri River to provide the "greatest good for the greatest number of people."

Marcia Gorrell is the agriculture reporter for The Marshall Democrat-News.

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Marcia Gorrell is the agriculture reporter for The Marshall Democrat-News. She specializes in featuring FFA and 4-H students and writes an ongoing series on Century Farms in the county.
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