Experts: Farmers not to blame for flooding

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 25, 2000

Rick Morrison and Leroy Sandven have come to the rescue of farmers accused of being responsible for flooding in Austin.

Tuesday, July 25, 2000

Rick Morrison and Leroy Sandven have come to the rescue of farmers accused of being responsible for flooding in Austin.

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Sandven said it is an "oversimplification" of the reasons for flooding in the city.

Morrison calls farm drainage a "good flood-control measure."

Two weeks ago, the waters of the Cedar River crested at 23.4 feet, or one and a half feet above the record-setting twin 100-year floods of 1978.

With three watersheds draining water into Turtle Creek, the Cedar River and Dobbins Creek and the city lying in their path, it would seem flooding events are inevitable.

One of the outgrowths of city residents’ frustrations at having to deal with the second major flood in seven years – there was also the great flood of August 1993 – was to fix blame and point fingers of guilt at a likely target.

It is well-known that more farmers have taken more land out of a natural collection basin for surface water and tiled those fields, thereby giving an even faster flow to the waters that runoff.

However, a case can be made that farmers are the first flood victims, when flash floods wash away valuable top soil and, therefore, that would not want to endanger the land they depend upon for their livelihoods.

Morrison, the Mower County drainage system inspector, makes that case.

"The function of tile lines and field drainage systems is to drain excess water from the soil," he said. "During normal times, this will drain water and take it to streams and rivers in a controllable fashion. But, these have not been normal times. We’ve had rains and more rains until the ground is saturated.

"Without tile lines, the farmers’ cropland is saturated. They can’t work the fields. They can’t even cultivate the crops when it’s this way. Drainage systems help alleviate this problem," he said.

Morrison said tile lines help surface water to move more quickly from cropland and that the tile lines act as a sponge.

He also said between 75 percent and 80 percent of the tillable farm land has tiling.

"But," he added, "the key point is this: It takes time for the water to get three and a half to four feet beneath the surface to the tile line and this subsurface drainage then carries the water away."

One acre of land may hold over 3.33 million gallons of water. Crops, the corn and beans seen growing in fields throughout Mower County, need a healthy combination of both soil and nutrients, but air and moisture as well.

Too much water can upset that balance and the crops’ roots suffocate and the plants die. The farmers’ yields then suffer.

According to Morrison, a typical field tile is four to five inches in diameter and leads to the larger main line leading to the tile outlet, which can be 15 inches in diameter.

Under normal circumstances, it will take 30 hours to drain a typical farm field.

Morrison also admitted that today’s runoff is more concentrated because of the expansive drainage systems beneath the surface of farm fields and that farmers are constantly replacing old drainage systems or adding to an existing system.

Also, conservation measures, including wetlands, are uppermost in the minds of every crop farmer.

"Wetlands still has its place in agriculture," he said. "It acts as a storage system for moisture, it acts as a filtering system for the water, and it’s a good flood-control measure."

Morrison said hard surfaces, whether they are in populated areas such as cities or towns or the countryside, create runoff, which can become a flash flood that can wreak the havoc Austin experienced July 9 and 10.

"Another reason why drainage is so important is that without field tiling, there would be more silt," he said. "Farmers can’t afford to lose anymore topsoil."

The recent flooding has prompted renewed interest in conservation measures and the 22nd Conservation Reserve Program should be a popular option for farmers with its 90 percent cost-share option.

Waterways are another popular conservation practice, according to Morrison.

"In a normal year, we would have, maybe, 10 to 12 CRP signups. This year there have been 60 new waterways requested for Mower County farm fields," he said.

While various conservation practices also have suffered damages from flash flooding, Morrison said 95 percent of the waterways maintained in good condition held up.

"This means seeding, clipping and getting ride of sedimentation building up," he said of the maintenance necessary for a waterway.

The corn stalk debris some people see in roadside ditches is evidence how conservation tillage is doing its job.

"Some people don’t understand this when they see corn stalks in the ditch, but stop and think what would happen to the soil if there wasn’t some stalks left standing. Conservation tillage saves the soil as much as anything," Morrison said.

The recent flooding has prompted renewed interest in conservation measures, including new programs such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s new Emergency Watershed Protection floodplain easement program. To be eligible, land must lie in the flood plain and have a history of flooding.

The signup ends July 28 and if funded, landowners must be willing to work with the NRCS to restore the natural functions and values of the land.

Mower County Farm Service Agency executive director Sandven is promoting the Emergency Conservation Program, which shares with producers the cost of rehabilitating farmlands damaged by natural disaster. The provision is the land, if left untreated, would impair or endanger the land, materially affect the land’s productive capacity or be so costly to repair that federal assistant would be needed to return the land to production agriculture use.

ECP funds may be used for debris removal, fence restoration, grading and shaping of farmland and restoring structures.

ECP cost-share assistance may be available to producers for all designated natural disasters. However, implementing the program first requires natural approval.

Mower County’s Sandven is presently collecting the necessary damage assessment information to submit for federal approval.

Sandven urges farmers to contact the local FSA office at 433-8429 for more information.

Sandven has heard the comments from city residents blaming farmers for their flood woes. He has seen the television news reports of frustrated city-dwellers.

"To point to any one thing is a gross over-simplification of the situation," Sandven said. "When they dredged Turtle Creek a few years ago and widened the channel, that only meant the water would flow faster, so by solving one problem they may have created another in Austin."

"Stopping erosion has to be the number one priority for farmers, but I don’t know if any one solution is out there to deal with the flash flooding created by surface water runoff. No matter what we do, the water will come anyway," he said.

Cropland assistance

Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Gene Hugoson is encouraging farmers to take advantage of available state and federal conservation programs.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, Minnesota Natural Resources Conservation Service and Minnesota Farm Service Agency are joining together to encourage farmers to take steps to protect their cropland from future funding.

The agriculture commissioner said the costs of constantly having to rehabilitate flooded farm land can, in part, be reduced or eliminated with conservation measures.

"Rehabilitating farmland after a flood is extremely costly," Hugoson said. "When a farmer experiences that year after year, as we’ve seen in northwestern Minnesota, it becomes frustrating and impossible to regain all the land that is lost.

"We hope farmers will take advantage of these state and federal tools to preserve eligible land."

Flood-control meeting

State Sen. Kenric Scheevel (R-Preston) has scheduled a meeting with state and federal officials to discuss alternatives for mitigating the impact of future flooding.

The meeting will be held at 2 p.m. Aug. 7 at Spring Valley City Hall.

Congressman Gil Gutknecht and stale Sen. Bob Kierlin (R-Winona) will attend.

The officials are expected to discuss options Spring Valley can pursue such as widening and deepening river channels, building reservoirs to slow flood waters and buffering water flow from agriculture land.

All interested Spring Valley area residents are invited to attend.

For more information, call Scheevel’s office at (651) 296-3903.