Flood Battle Scars of 2019

09:46AM Dec 09, 2019
The Flood That Won’t End
The Missouri River has posted more consecutive days above flood stage in 2019 than in 1993 and 2011, the past two major floods.
( Chart Source: NOAA; Photo: Tyne Morgan; Graphic: Lindsey Benne )

Along the Missouri River, water continues to suffocate farmland. Scars include fertile soil being swept away, gaping holes from raging currents and mountains of debris.

Farmers such as Travis Matthews in Carroll County, Mo., can’t escape 2019’s harsh bite. He lost half of the acres he farms to flooding and had to move out of his home twice.

“It’s the worst flooding I’ve personally experienced because it’s lasted more than 240 days,” he says. “We haven’t had a break in the inflow of water all summer or fall.”

“It’s the worst we’ve seen since the 1950s in some places,” adds Congressman Sam Graves, R-Mo. “We’re talking about more than 1 million acres that flooded across five states. Looking back, when we talk about the worst floods we’ve seen along the Missouri River, we’ll talk about 1993, 2011 and 2019.”

The Flood Hangover

Thousands of acres are still underwater near the Missouri River, and that flooding could last into the spring and even summer of 2020, says Tom Waters, chairman of the Missouri Levee Association.

“The entire basin is seeing saturated soils,” Waters says. “When it rains and snows, it’s not going to soak into the soil; it’s all going to run into the river, and we’ll have the same situation.”

While fixing levees is a priority for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the agency acknowledges the implications could continue to impact landowners in 2020.

“It is important to understand flooding can and will occur regardless of available reservoir storage space,” says John Remus, chief of the Missouri River water management division, USACE.

Forgotten Farmland

Around 1,000 acres of farmland Matthews rents has already been placed into an easement and removed from production.

These decisions will likely be mirrored by other landowners.

“A lot of times environmental and fish and wildlife groups go after the absentee landowners who haven’t seen a return on their property the last few years,” Waters says.

Matthews is doing all he can to secure his farm’s future. Since USACE is flooded with requests for help, he’s working with FEMA to build a temporary levee instead.

“We’re just trying to stop the inflow so we can fix the other levees that have been breached,” he says. “Until we stop this water from coming in this main levee, we cannot work on any of the four levee breaches going into spring.”

The Kansas City District of USACE says repair work will begin in 2020. It is the largest levee rehabilitation effort since 1993 and could take two years to restore all levee systems damaged from flooding in 2019.

The Path Forward

The challenge farmers along the Missouri River face today is an issue that started 20 years ago. Waters says USACE needs to maintain the river for flood control.

“Flood control needs to be the top priority all the time, not just when we’re staring down the barrel of a major flood,” Graves adds. “We continue to spend money rebuilding levees and communities, only to not change a thing about the way we are operating our river system. Something has to change.”

Policy change around USACE funding must come quickly, Graves says, otherwise farmers and communities near the Missouri River could continue to face devastating floods every few years.