Intentional Flooding Overtakes Farmland

The Army Corps of Engineers is flooding farmland in the Midwest and the South to prevent disaster in major cities.

by Dani Yokhna
Courtesy FEMA/ Jace Anderson
Floodwater from the Birds Point levee is receding, but areas of rural Missouri are still affected.

In the words of country-music artist Luke Bryan, “rain is a good thing.” But what happens when that good thing becomes so counterproductive it destroys the livelihood of thousands and threatens wide-scale disaster cleanup efforts?

The unusual weather patterns of spring 2011 posed this dilemma to farmers, as record-setting amounts of rain fell on the Midwest and the South. In communities like Cairo, Ill., located where the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers merge, and New Orleans and Baton Rouge, La., the result was  swollen and flooded rivers.  

To combat overflowing rivers threatening to take out major U.S. cities, the Army Corps of Engineers decided to open several levees along the length of the Mississippi River and flood rural farmland instead. Farms in several states have been impacted by the floodwater, including Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana and Missouri. In Missouri alone, more than 100,000 acres of rich farmland have been consumed by water from the Birds Point levee breech.

Most of the farmland belongs to large-scale farmers, says Michael Aide, Southeast Missouri State University’s agriculture department chair, but he reports family farms, including those that have been in families for generations, have been affected, as well. 

Flooding has not occurred strictly from the levee breechings but also from heavy rains, Aide notes. In a sense, everyone has been affected, from small-scale farms and garden producers to horticulturists and individuals in the lawn-care business.

Much of the damaged farmland is used to raise traditional crops such as corn, soybeans, wheat and some cotton, but larger organic farms have been hit, as well, Aide says.

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Flooded organic farms will likely not need to be re-certified after cleanup, Aide says. His concerns are the economic effects and the unusual problems the flooding has created for farms. The watershed could bring in seeds—both weeds and crops—to farms from other areas that take root in a new area, he explains.

“I have tomatoes growing in my corn,” he says.

Counties affected by the floodwaters could also see financial strain on other community resources, as money used for schools, roads, police and fire departments might be reallocated for disaster cleanup. The financial damage created by the flooding will reach into the millions, Aide says.

“Farming is a lifeblood,” he says. “It’s really sad.”

Intentional flooding is not a new idea. In the 1930s, Missouri opened up the Birds Point levee to avoid a similar disaster, and the Bonnet Carre levee New Orleans has been opened 10 times over the years for the same reason. Every year, intentional flooding is a possibility, Aide says.

These areas may still see more flooding this year.

“Everyone is scratching their heads,” Aide says of recent weather patterns. “It’s been a most unusual year.” Missouri has already gone from floods to 100-degree-F days.

There will be some relief for farmers thanks to Farm Service Agency loans, which assist farmers through such times of loss with the goal of preventing the farms from shutting down entirely.

“Even small operations could turn to FSA programs for disaster assistance, emergency loans to carry them through loss,” says James Patton, FSA executive director. 

FSA also offers crop insurance if policies were purchased before planting and the crop was already in the ground prior to the flooding.

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