Farmers still sifting through flood damage


April 20th, 2012

Tekamah, NE – The Missouri River flood of 2011 was the worst in 60 years; nearly a year later, farmers are still dealing with the aftermath.

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Hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland were flooded in Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri. A study for the Nebraska Farm Bureau estimated crop losses of $105 million across 14 Nebraska counties, including $22 million in Burt County alone, where Scott Olson farms 3,000 acres with his brother, Randy, and father, Bob. They had 500 acres damaged by flooding in 2011, and in some areas, the damage was devastating.

Scott Olson farms 3,000 acres in Burt County. 500 acres were damaged by flooding in 2011. (Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News)

Scott Olson rides a four-wheel all-terrain vehicle down across one of the fields that was flooded. He wears a green-striped, western shirt, a big belt buckle and a cap that said”Lee Valley, Inc.” – the name of his family’s farm. He describes the worst-hit areas of the field, where topsoil was washed away and replaced by sand and silt up to 15 feet deep. In other places, massive craters 20 to 30 feet deep were excavated by swirling flood waters.

“Everybody said it looked like being on the moon,” Olson said.

Where repairs were possible, the holes were filled and sand hauled away. Olson puts the cost of those repairs at $200,000 so far. Neighbors, he said, spent $600,000 or more.

Nebraska farmers have received $23.6 million in federal insurance for flood damage to crops in 2011. They can also can apply for a portion of nearly $12 million set aside by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help pay for restoring fields, and repairing waterways and wetlands.

Some of Olson's flooded land is beyond repair. (Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News)

Some areas are beyond repair. John Wilson, an agriculture specialist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension, estimated that up to 15 percent of the flooded land near Tekamah may never be restored.

Olson stopped his ATV to examine a cover crop of oats planted to keep the soil in place. Here, the sand was shallow enough to till into the dirt underneath. Olson was getting ready to plant corn and soybeans, but he wondered whether anything would grow.

“There’s a few blades of grass and a few button weeds popping up,” Olson said. “I take it as a bad sign, because there should be a lot more cover crop out here, and right now, even weeds are a blessing.”

Wilson planted a research plot to study how the soil recovers. He said the silt left by the flood holds less moisture and fewer nutrients for growing corn and soybeans – and it’s missing vital bacteria.

Olson sifts through flooded soil that now looks more like beach sand. (Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News)

“There’s an organism in the soil called arbuscular mycorrhiza,” Wilson said. “They get moisture and nutrients from the plants, but they also help in nutrient uptake. Any kind of living root system will help repopulate the mycorrhiza in the soil.”

In Scott Olson’s view, the flood of 2011 was a man-made situation, caused by the Army Corps of Engineers. He created a group with other farmers and riverside business people called Responsible River Management, and said the Army Corps should have been prepared for the extra runoff last year.

More water entered the Missouri River in 2011 than any year on record – 61 million acre-feet. It overwhelmed the flood capacity of the dams and reservoirs controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers, and to move that water through the system, releases from Gavin’s Point Dam were increased to 160,000 cubic feet-per-second, or CFS – double the previous record. It stayed that way for months.

Jody Farhat, chief of the Corps’ Missouri River Basin Water Management Division, said the volume of water made record-setting releases unavoidable.

“Even if the reservoirs had no water in them, if you want to end up a year later exactly where you started, you have to pass the 61 million acre-feet of water through the reservoirs and through the downstream river reach,” he said. “And that requires releases of about 100,000 CFS for a long period of time.”

Farhat said that means major damage was also unavoidable. For example, the levee near Hamburg, Iowa was breached while releases were still around 70,000 CFS.

Brigadier General John McMahon, the Northwestern Division commander, said increasing the capacity of the river channel could make a difference in the future. Accomplishing that would most likely mean moving back levees, and, McMahon said, recognizing a greater risk to living, farming and working on the floodplain.

“I mean, if we’re serious long-term about accommodating an event like occurred in 2011, we’re going to have to change the way the floodplain is viewed,” he said. “Local zoning laws and development and all that needs to be thought about in a new light.”

At a final stop, Scott Olson toured a neighbor’s field where the river broke out of its main channel and carved what is now a small, oxbow lake. It looks out of place, stuck in the middle of a cornfield.

“And this here again is a small area,” Olson said. “You get into Percival, Iowa. Hamburg. Rockport. Big Lake. There’s so many areas down there where the water spread out further and did more damage than it did here. But they’re going to have to rewrite the book after this one.”

River managers and farmers like Scott Olson are still coming to terms with a flood unlike any they’ve dealt with before.

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