Water Nightmare in Full Color

Published on: 11:08AM May 03, 2011

Off the farm, I am heavily immersed in water issues. Over the past ten years with the Illinois Association of Drainage Districts, I have discussed many different aspects of managing stormwater. I admit that the management of water of the floodplain is vastly different then managing the drainage of the prairie. In the end, water is an emotional issue.

Here in central Illinois, we are frustrated with the pattern of wet weather leaving our drainage ditches full and lakes in our fields. It is the beginning of May and the pressure to plant our crop without sacrificing yields is on. However, the stress that our local farmers are feeling could never measure up to the stress of the families in southern Illinois and Missouri.
As I attempted to complete the normal operation of the association, farm, and household, my social media outlets were buzzing about the blasting of the Birds Point levee to save the town of Cairo. I listened to passionate pleas by southern Illinois lawmakers asking the Army Corps of Engineers to blast the levee to relieve the water pressure. I watched Missouri officials fighting back with legal action to protect their state’s valuable resource of farmland and homes that could face immediate destruction if the man-made breach was carried through. The "lives over farmland" debate was launched.
As I tossed and turned all weekend thinking about the events involving the town of Cairo and Missouri's farmland, I knew that words can never articulate the full-color water nightmare the homeowners and farmers are going through.
When Maj. Gen. Michael J. Walsh, president of the Mississippi River Commission, ordered the operation of the floodway to be carried out at 9 p.m. Monday, my stomach dropped. I agree that lives are more important than farmland, but in the long run, will blasting the levee truly save the homes in Cairo? I have asked myself many times why we keep building homes in the floodplains. Only the residents of Cairo can tell you why they live there.
History has shown us that reaching crest is essential for a man-made breach to be effective. Was the right decision made? The answer to that question is perhaps in the eyes of the beholder. For the resident of Cairo, the answer for now is "yes."
However, on the other side of the levee, the voices of the 90 homeowners seem lost. The Missouri farmers' local experiences of farming behind the levee seem unimportant. Pam Fretwell’s interview on AgWeb Radio with Missouri farmer John Morton put a commonsense spin on the situation. 
Morton points out that after this crisis created by Mother Nature is over, "We would like to use our levee after the river goes down. We would still like to plant a crop."
In Morton’s local area, levees play an important role in feeding the world, similar to man-made ditches in the flatter parts of Illinois. Without proper drainage, no seed can survive. Ultimately, political priorities that do not factor costs over benefits could leave this country getting their groceries from foreign outlets.
Furthermore, Morton explains, a natural overtopping of the levee would not be as drastic to the land as the sudden rush of water created by a blast. How many roads, bridges and homes in Missouri have been destroyed?
I do not know if the decision to blast the levee was the right one. I do, however, have many questions circulating in my head:
Crop insurance only covers natural floods. On Monday morning, the water did begin to top over the levee. Pictures were captured, but will that be enough evidence for those individuals that actually have crop insurance to receive compensation for the loss of crops?
Will the levee breach continue to protect the homes of Cairo with more rain in the forecast?
Who will ultimately pay for the levee to be repaired?
Who will get federal aid first, homeowners or farmers? My bet is on the homeowners.
Who will save those farmers from losing their income and homes to bankruptcy?
Has the large blast overshadowed the other areas in both Illinois and Missouri that are fighting to save their lives and livelihood?
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            Photo courtesy of D.Duvall, So. IL Drainage District Commissioner: His backyard, once a wheat field, is now a lake.