Severe flooding across midwestern U.S. states like Nebraska, Iowa, and Missouri has taken out hundreds of miles of levees, leaving officials to compare the failed system to Swiss cheese, on the heels of mid-March “bomb cyclone” storm conditions that inundated more than a million acres (405,000 hectares) of farmland.
“Breaches everywhere: multiple, multiple breaches,” said Holt County, Missouri Presiding Commissioner Tom Bullock, the area’s top elected official.
“On the river-specked Midwestern prairie, the thousands of miles of levees are an insurance policy against nature’s whims that, at their best, keep cropland and towns dry, floodwaters at bay, and the agriculture-driven economy churning,” the New York Times explains. “But the levees are aging, subject to uneven regulation and, in many cases, never designed to withstand the river levels seen in the last decade.”
After the bomb cyclone hit, the breaches “left large areas without even cursory flood protection,” the Times reports. “And with the fear of more floods in the coming years—and perhaps even the coming weeks—many people said living and farming near the water might not be viable much longer without major changes.”
“We can’t keep this up and make a living,” said northwest Missouri corn and soybean farmer Michael Peters, who’d been forced to search for the path to his submerged farm by motorboat.
In its 2017 Report Card on America’s Infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers assigned the U.S. levee system a D grade and called for US$80 billion in upgrades over 10 years. Now, the Times says the breaches are bringing back questions about how the rivers should be managed, who makes the decisions, and how much protection to provide to the most vulnerable.
“Many of the levees, usually earthen and topped with grass, were built by farmers decades ago and are now managed by a patchwork of local government agencies known as levee districts that often do not coordinate or even follow the same rules,” the Times notes. “With increased flooding in the past few years, the levees are being tested more frequently than ever before, straining the finances and expertise of some of those districts.”
Days before the New York Times story, Reuters reported on the million acres of farmland that will almost certainly be taken out of production this year. “Fields are strewn with everything from silt and sand to tires,” the news agency notes. “The water has also destroyed billions of dollars of old crops that were in storage, as well as damaging roads and railways.”
“If we had straight sunshine now until May and June, maybe it can be done, but I don’t see how that soil gets back with expected rainfall,” said Fullerton, Nebraska farmer Ryan Sonderup.
Adding insult to injury, Reuters says U.S. disaster aid won’t reimburse the farmers for their ruined crops.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture “has no mechanism to compensate farmers for damaged crops in storage,” the news agency notes, citing Undersecretary Bill Northey. “That’s in part because U.S. farmers have never stored so much of their harvests, after years of oversupplied markets, low prices, and the latest blow of lost sales from the U.S. trade war with China—previously their biggest buyer of soybean exports.”
“It’s not traditionally been covered,” Northey said. “But we’ve not usually had as many losses.”