As flooding rules the land, some farmers give in to Mother Nature

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August 14, 2011 - 7:00pm

For much of the Midwest, flooding seems to be the new normal. In Iowa alone, floods over the last four years have been some of the highest ever recorded.

Those who farm along rivers have been left with broken levees, damaged crops and gouged-out fields that translate to expensive repairs. And climatologists say there could be more severe rainfall in the future, which has heightened concerns about farming in floodplains.

In eastern Iowa, along the Maquoketa River, one community of landowners is considering giving up the fight against Mother Nature. Several have been offered federal funds from the Wetland Reserve Program to restore their fertile farmland to permanent wetlands.

Landowner Ann Wolf has signed over her land along Iowa's Maquoketa River to the Wetland Reserve Program. (Photo by Kathleen Masterson/Harvest Public Media)

"You can see how the river, 100 years ago, wanted to go this way. But when they came in and put the levee in, they straightened the river out," said Wolf, as she looked out over a mile-long dirt wall that has protected her ground for decades. "Well the river said I'm part of Mother Nature, I really want to do what I want to do, and I want to go back to the way it was."

And that's just what it did. Last year, when heavy rains broke the Delhi dam, fast and strong waters coursed south and broke two large holes in the 90-year old, 15-foot-high levee. Now water from the Maquoketa River flows in one hole, makes an oxbow bend, and flows out the other.

This is just the way the river flowed a century ago according to plat maps of the area, Wolf said: "It really is natural wetland."

And the federal government agrees. After the levee breach, the Jackson County Natural Resources Conservation Service submitted a proposal to turn the flooded fields into permanent wetland.

"It's a great area to help reduce flooding, slow the water down, filter out the floodwaters, and also to just improve natural habitat period, because that is a national flyway for migratory birds," said Lori Schnoor, who helped write the project proposal.

Schnoor, a conservationist, said that creating a wetland can also help filter farmland run-off from the water before it reaches the Mississippi River, which is about a mile downstream. The project has received funding from the $320 million Mississippi River Basin Initiative, a federal project that targets upstream areas contributing to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

Fighting Mother Nature

Now landowners have to decide if they'll take the federal offer and sign over their farmland into a permanent wetland easement.

If they accept the deal, they retain ownership and are responsible for upkeep of the land, and would be paid a one-time fee for the value of their land. And they can say goodbye to risks of flooding and constant clean up.

"In general, we've had a lot more interested in flood plain programs, due to the fact that within the last 10 years, there have been three significant floods on the floodplain," Schnoor said. "And that creates a lot of debris and sand, and basically gouges into their land or holes, and that takes lot of money to repair that. I've heard some say, I'm just tired of fighting it.' "

However, only a handful of the 39 landowners affected by the Maquoketa flooding were given the wetlands option. Some landowners want to keep up the fight.

"As far as I'm concerned it ain't a tough issue, it's 'yes' or 'no,' " said farmer Roger Kyle.

Kyle, who has 80 acres under water this season, said he didn't get an offer to put his acres the Wetland Reserve Program, but he wasn't interested anyway.

"Then you can't farm it then to pay the taxes," he said.

Kyle said if the levee isn't repaired, water will seep into his farmland, making it impossible to raise a healthy crop. But some landowners are concerned that if they invest big money to repair the levee, it may just break again in the future when they won't have funds left.

That rationale doesn't translate for Kyle.

"Well, with that mentality, it would have never been fixed back in 44, or 43 when it broke. All the times it ever broke, 'well, it could break again.' Of course it can break again we live with that," he said.

To rebuild or not

The Army Corps of Engineers said a cost-benefit analysis found that repairing the levee isn't worth it. So the decision on whether to repair the levee comes down to the county, specifically the Jackson County Board of Supervisors.

Board member Steve Flynn said he's hearing that the majority of the 39 landowners in the affected area don't want to fix the levee. And if most of the landowners who were offered federal money to turn the land into wetland accept, that could push the board to vote against repairing the levee.

"The supervisors, in my opinion, we're kind of like the referees, we're trying to keep peace and harmony with the neighbors, and because it's an issue that's close to everybody's heart," Flynn said. "People have farmed that area for years, and now they run the risk of farming it but being flooded out every time there's a substantial rain."

After a heated public meeting in early August, the Board of Supervisors was still no closer to making a decision on whether to rebuild the levee. None of the landowners offered federal wetland money shared whether they plan to sign over their land.

The most the conservation service would say is that "a good percentage of the people are interested in the buyout," said board member Jack Willey. Plus, a contingent vying to repair the levee was appealing a decision by the Army Corps of Engineers' that they can't use nearby fill.

Waiting on both outcomes, Willey said, the board will announce a decision by the end of September.

Flooding ahead?

Other floodplain areas in the Midwest are facing similar questions. For example, there was much debate before rebuilding began on the Birds Point Levee in southeast Missouri, where 200 square miles of fertile farmland were flooded earlier this summer.

Though this isn't a new issue, climate scientist Chris Anderson at Iowa State University said the past decade of flooding actually does indicate we're likely to see more of this weather.

"Without a doubt, we've had more rain in Iowa in last 10 years than we typically have gotten over the 138-year record," Anderson said. "In Iowa in particular, the last four years that's 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010 are in the top 13 of years in record."

Periods of rain and drought naturally occur in cycles, said Anderson, and right now we're in a rainy period. So the past five years are likely a good indication of what we're facing for the next decade.

"That's a fact; we just can't get around it there is more rain falling on Iowa soils. How that gets translated into flood is a really a complicated story," Anderson said.

Strangely enough, it's not as simple as more rain equals more floods. There are many factors such as soil saturation, land and river geography and the heavy influences of human activity, such as straightening rivers and growing crops where there used to be prairie. Row crops like corn and soybeans don't take up water in the soil until much later in the summer, as compared to prairies grasses that absorb water in the spring. This means that the soil could be more saturated for longer periods of time, and when it's saturated, water tends to run off into rivers or pool.

"Then of course, there is a role for wetlands, in slowing the flow, and having a reservoir for heavy rainfall to filter into. And our wetlands are pretty much non-existent compared to what once were," Anderson said.

So could more wetlands be the answer? Well, they could play a role. Anderson said as an Iowa resident, he thinks they're a good idea. But as a scientist, he can't say if adding an occasional wetland here and there has an impact on the state's overall flooding risk.

And in a state whose main industry is agriculture, giving up fertile farm-ground in these floodplains can be a tough sell. Still record flooding and the possibility of more to come have led some to reconsider the risks that come with farming these areas.

Natural Resources Conservation Services officials report that they've seen an uptick in applications for wetland reserve programs.



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