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Monday, May 02, 2011

Farmland Versus The River And The Rest Of The World


Is it man versus nature?  Is it Illinois versus Missouri?  Is it farmers versus city folk? Is the Corps of Engineers versus 200 bushel per acre corn farms?  Or is “versus” part something that should not be part of the equation?  For Missouri farmers, the decision is easy.  For residents of Cairo, Illinois, the decision is easy.  For the Army Corps of Engineers, the decision is probably already made, but the flood stages on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers will dictate the implementation of the decision.  Nevertheless, rising waters are the enemy of everyone.  Agriculture, most likely, will be the loser, if flood waters are not already claiming victory.

Heightened emotions are on both sides of the Mississippi River at the confluence with the Ohio, where the water-logged Cornbelt is trying to drain.  Record amounts of spring rains in many Midwestern counties have been funneled to a bottleneck at Cairo, Illinois, at the southern tip of Illinois.  The community of 3,000 people and a lengthy history dating to the underground railroad of the Civil War has so far won the federal legal battles that have given the Corps of Engineers the authority to destroy the Birds Point levee that is protecting 132,000 acres of southeastern Missouri farmland.

The 206.25 square miles of farmland lies in an area designated as the New Madrid Floodway, a long-designated area that could be intentionally flooded in case the Mississippi could not handle floodwaters, as well as those coming down the Ohio.  The plan to open the bottleneck dates back to a devastating flood in 1927 when public works projects began to renovate the lower part of the world’s third largest river basin.  That included levees, reservoirs, pumping stations and other measures to control flooding.  In Southeastern Missouri that included allowing the river to run over the top of a levee known as Bird’s point, create a wide shallow stream, and then flow back into the Mississippi river over another levee 34 miles to the southwest.  Authority for river management falls to the Mississippi River Commission, and its report indicated some opposition early in the planning stages, “Opposition to that floodway was best expressed by Missouri congressman Dewey Short when he proclaimed to the House Committee on Flood Control that his constituents “do not want to see southeast Missouri made the dumping ground to protect Cairo, much as we love Cairo.”

The shallow flow will be anywhere from 4 to 12 miles wide, and will inundate hundreds of farms and farmsteads, which are rapidly being evacuated, if not already.  The high water has already become a dominant part of the landscape because the Mississippi has already spilled over many levees, without going over the Birds Point levee, which was the plan.  As a result, the Corps of Engineers has laced a two mile portion of the Birds Point levee with explosive to open a gap below Cairo that will more quickly drain the bottleneck at the confluence of the two rivers.  When the levee is intentionally destroyed will be determined by the height of the water at the Cairo gauge and the ability of its levees to hold water away from the community.

At the lower end of the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway is an opening designed to allow the escape of water that comes into the upper end.  However it has never been closed due to the lack of cooperative agreements with landowners and other interests, particularly the Environmental Defense Fund and the National Wildlife Federation, and the Mississippi waters have backed up into the area 17 times between 1961 and 2008.  Another effort to plug the lower end will begin late in 2012 with another Environmental Impact Statement.

Monday AM Update:
Flooded farmlandland in Missouri could potentially be a $77.6 million loss, based on new crop prices and average yields from the 2010 crop.  USDA’s reported yields for Mississippi County, Missouri was 148 bushel average for corn, 41 bushel average for soybeans, and 62 bushel average for wheat.  With new crop wheat bids of $7.87 at Cargill in Sikeston, new crop corn bid of $6.20 at Buchheit in Morehouse, and $13.43 for new beans at Cargill in Sikeston, potential crop loss value on 132,000 acres of farmland with c-s-w rotation would exceed $77 million.

Monday PM Update:SIKESTON, MO., May 2, 2011 –Maj. Gen Michael J. Walsh, President of the Mississippi River Commission, will announce his decision regarding operation of the Floodway at a press conference at 5 p.m. today (May 2) at the Checkpoint on the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway levee road.

Cairo gage at 61.41 at 4 p.m,  up 1.33 ft. in past 24 hours.  Forecast for Tuesday is 62.50 ft.

Monday evening UpdateWith little surprise, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would intentionally breach the Birds Point Levee below Cairo and “operate the floodway” to relieve flooding upstream at Cairo.  Major General Michael Walsh indicated it was a difficult decision to flood farmland, but the floodway was designed to protect land that could not otherwise be protected from flooding.

Cairo gage at 61.67 at 9 p.m.  up 1.34 ft. in past 24 hours with Tuesday forecast at 62.50 ft.

Midnight update:
Apparently, the breaching of the levee has achieved its purpose.  The Cairo gage is now at 61.29. about four inches lower than the level of the river at 9 p.m.  The forecast for tomorrow is now at 60.40 ft.,  more than 2 feet lower than the forecast before the intentional breaching of the levee.

Decisions are not easy, but so far Missouri farmers and farmland owners have been on the losing side when it comes to opening up a bottleneck at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers where the Illinois community of Cairo is being threatened with high waters.  The US Army Corps of Engineers is standing by to intentionally destroy a levee that will allow high waters to inundate 132,000 acres of farmland with a shallow river that will flow to the southwest and exit into another part of the Mississippi River, if all goes as planned.  However, farmsteads have been evacuated and rich farmland will be damaged.

Posted by Stu Ellis on 05/02 at 12:00 AM | Permalink

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