Recovering from historic flood

Scott Olson is getting ready to plant corn and soybeans, but he wonders if anything will grow.

By Grant Gerlock

"There's a few blades of grass and a few button weeds popping up," Olson said as he looked over a field along the Missouri River. "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."

Olson farms 3,000 acres around Tekamah in northeastern Nebraska with his father, Bob, and brother, Randy as part of "Lee Valley Inc." About 500 of their acres were under water in the Missouri River flood of 2011, the worst in 60 years.  Indeed, hundreds of thousands of acres were flooded in Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri. A study for the Nebraska Farm Bureau estimated crop losses of $105 million across 14 counties.  In Iowa, a similar study estimated crop losses at $162 million.

Now it’s planting season. And farmers like Olson are unsure what to expect.

In the worst hit areas of one of Lee Valley’s field, the topsoil was replaced by sand 10 or 15 feet deep. In other places, swirling water excavated massive holes 20 or 30 feet deep.

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

Where repairs were possible, the holes were filled and sand hauled away. Olson put the cost of those repairs at $200,000 so far. Neighbors, he said, spent $600,000 or more. And even then it will take years to get the soil back in shape.

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.

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.

"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."

Some help is available. 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. 

In Olson's view, the flood of 2011 was a man-made situation caused by the Army Corps of Engineers.

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 (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.

But Olson isn’t satisfied. 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.

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."

On that point, Olson agrees.

Touring a neighbor's field where the river broke out of its main channel and carved what is now a small, oxbow lake, he said: “They're going to have to rewrite the book after this one."