Big Water, Big Work

January 30, 2009 06:00 PM

Larry McClendon says water has shaped his world—big water, high water, water that moves soil and sometimes roads and houses—water events that make a mark on a man's memory.
Larry McClendon says the pumping plant keeps his farm operation viable.

He grows cotton, corn, soybeans, grain sorghum and wheat outside Marianna, Ark., near the St. Francis River, which flows southward from the hills of Missouri into the Mississippi River 15 miles from his place. On a map, the St. Francis looks rather inconsequential. Up close and personal, though, it can be a powerhouse pushing a blast of water McClendon's way.

Two levee systems protect his farm. Sometimes they're not enough. Early last summer, he had more than 3,000 acres underwater.

"In winter and spring, we work on getting water off it. In summer, we focus on getting water on it. We average 50" of rain a year. That's a beautiful average, but most of it comes when we don't need it, so we irrigate 60% of the farm,” McClendon says.

"This is very productive, rich alluvial land, but it's hard to farm because of topography. It's undulatory. There's a lot of slope. The soil type varies. It's hard to get a stand,” he says.

McClendon, chairman of the National Cotton Council, likes to take visitors a few miles down the road to the W. G. Huxtable Pumping Plant, operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Situated on the St. Francis River just 13 miles from where it joins the Mississippi River, the plant opened in 1977 after five years of construction costing $30 million. It is the largest stormwater pumping plant in the world. McClendon says he could not farm his land if the pumping plant was not here.

Necessary equipment. "There are a whole lot of things about the government that don't work, but this plant does. We'd be in a lot of trouble without it. If it wasn't here, I wouldn't be farming. In 2008, the water would have backed up 15 or 20 miles without it. Floods like that would take me out of the farming business. Bankers wouldn't loan money in this area without it. It's hard for me to say enough good things about it,” McClendon says.

During spring and summer last year, the plant, with 10 Fairbanks-Morse opposed-piston diesel engines rated at 4,000 hp each, ran for 105 straight days moving water from the St. Francis into the Mississippi. Each engine powers a 120" diameter Ingersoll-Dresser variable-pitch propeller pump with a capacity of more than 600,000 gal. a minute. That's more than big. It's huge.

The plant protects 2,013 square miles of land reaching all the way into Missouri. "That's 1.3 million acres of some of the most fertile land in the nation. Plus, there are two interstate highways and lots of towns and houses,” says Jerry Posey, the Huxtable plant's operations and maintenance supervisor.

Posey has worked at the plant for 35 years, the first three as an electrician as the plant was being built, the past 32 for the Corps. He knows every corner, nut and bolt of the plant and recalls how the plant responded during the floods of 1983, 1993, 1997 and 2008.

"Last summer, it was 15' higher on the Mississippi side than the St. Francis side. It was our job to keep it from backing up the St. Francis,” Posey says.

From July 1 to Nov. 1, the plant does maintenance on its pumps and other equipment. From mid-November to June, though, it sits ready.

Outside the plant, McClendon looks up and down the superstructure. "This place is invaluable to agriculture,” he says. "It drains land from Blytheville, Ark., to below Marianna and east-west from Crowley's Ridge to the Mississippi River. I'd be out of the farming business without it.”

You can e-mail Charles Johnson at

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