Iowa farmers who live and farm along Iowa's western edge are used to occasional flooding along the Missouri River. But high waters and extreme circumstances that have occurred the past two weeks have brought problems along the Missouri River front and center to not only those living close to the water, but also to people worlds away.
Last week, the Iowa Farm Bureau released estimates showing that almost 150,000 acres of Iowa farmland could be affected by the current 2011 flooding along the Missouri River, and this could mean a loss of millions of bushels of grain up and down the river this year.
"The Iowa Corn Growers Association has had a long-term concern about the out-dated infrastructure along both the Missouri and Mississippi river systems," says Dean Taylor, a farmer from Prairie City and president of the Iowa Corn Growers Association. "Right now we should all focus on how we can help those people along the Missouri River fight the flood waters. But after the waters recede, updating the river and dam systems needs to be a priority to avoid future flooding."
Updating river and dam system is needed to avoid future flooding
For historical reference, the Missouri River re-channeled itself near Omaha in 1877, shortcutting a loop which effectively moved more than 1,500 acres of Nebraska land to the Iowa side of the river. Large flooding on the Missouri occurred after that in 1943, 1952, 1967, 1984, 1990 and most recently in 1993 as excess rainfall brought $445 million in federal damage relief and more than 125 homes were lost.
During the 1960's the system of six federal dams and levee systems was completed. The system of dams was originally designed for flood control to facilitate hydroelectric power and transportation.
"But, it appears in recent years that recreational uses have taken precedence over the needs of flood control," says Taylor. "As excess stored water has been released from the already full lake system created by the federal dams, the flooding has severely affected many people and their livelihoods. As we look to the future, we need a plan along the Missouri River that emphasizes flood control management, and allows a stable future for commerce, hydroelectric power and conservation of natural resources."
Vilsack tells flooded farmers: no new disaster funds likely
The reality of the huge federal budget deficit that is being debated in Washington D.C. and throughout the country was clearly voiced by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in meetings last week with farmers and others along the flooded Missouri River. Vilsack visited that area along the western edge of Iowa and eastern edge of Nebraska. He told the flooded-out farmers to not expect more financial help from Washington.
"The USDA budget is being cut by 13% today, and after talking with members of Congress yesterday I would say chances are slim that more money will be made available for disaster or insurance programs," Vilsack told about 30 farmers gathered at Glenwood High School.
David Luoth, who farms in Freemont County in Iowa's southwest corner, told Vilsack the $100,000 cap on USDA disaster programs "will not provide enough money." Luoth said much of his land already is underwater, mostly from underground seepage. Bryan Johnson, who farms near Percival, where seepage already has covered most fields, said USDA-subsidized crop insurance programs pay for just a portion of his expected losses. "I have about a $500,000 loss on my corn," said Johnson. "This is costly. It's going to be hard to swallow."
Don Dilts, who farms in west Pottawattamie County north of Council Bluffs, brought a hush to the crowd when he said, "I've sold 50% of my crop in forward contracts" for delivery later this year of corn that is still in the ground. "But three-quarters of my land is already underwater."
Will USDA-backed insurance treat this flood as natural disaster?
Vilsack told the farmers that USDA's insurance program would treat the floods as a natural, not a man-made, disaster and maintain eligibility for insurance payouts. However, in the face of persistent critical questions about the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Vilsack also gave the farmers gathered at the school in Glenwood this advice: "Be very careful about what you say. If I were an insurance company and there was all this talk about how the floods were caused by human error, I would use that information to avoid payments."
Farmers are complaining that the release of water from upstream dams in the Dakotas was done too late this spring, after excessive snowmelt and rainfall had already collected in the lakes and huge upriver reservoirs on the Missouri River.
Vilsack, who served as Iowa's governor for two four-year terms, completed his second term in 2007. At the meetings with the flooded farmers late last week, he said he would take the farmers' complaints about the flooding and their suggestions regarding what needs to be done to help farmers, back to Washington, D.C. The USDA chief also added, "Everybody thinks I have a lot of extra power because I am a member of the Cabinet. Really, I had more power when I was the governor of Iowa."