Letter From Langdon: Talking Dirt

We all want to keep the soil we have. So why is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposing to bulldoze it into the Missouri River?

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People like me who live and work in the Missouri River valley have the perception that government agencies like the Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are not exactly on the same page when it comes to flood control. It doesn’t help when yet another farmland buy out comes through some part of publicly funded state or federal government after flood prevention fails. 

Keep in mind, it is government-built and government-controlled dams that regulate the flow of water on the Missouri.

Awhile back I attended a hearing at the Missouri Department of Natural Resources office in Jefferson City where the Missouri Clean Water Commission took testimony from landowners and concerned citizens regarding the Jameson Island Project.

The Corps is working on behalf of Fish and Wildlife to create what they say will be better habitat for endangered species like the piping plover and pallid sturgeon. That set off loud objections from farmers when one of the river chutes they planned to build looked like a gun barrel pointed directly at a section of Missouri River levee. 

A river chute is a second, shallow channel to the side of the main channel. Sort of like an oxbow. If artificial chutes are not properly designed, when flooding occurs, a dangerous current can flow through, churning things up even more. 

Piling dugout soil to the sides of the man-made chute wasn’t part of the plan because environmentalists oppose it, and hauling it away was judged too expensive. The Clean Water Commission became involved because the Corps asked to be exempted from Missouri law that prevents dumping soil directly into the river. 

They want to bulldoze it off the riverbank and let the water take it away.

There are a couple of reasons why that seems like a bad idea. For one thing farmers whose land has been covered with sand by last year’s flood are prevented from returning sand into the river because government calls it contaminated. 

Another: farmers always get the blame for Gulf hypoxia, the overloading of plant nutrients at the mouth of the Mississippi that occurs naturally through runoff from farms….and heavily fertilized urban lawns, golf courses, and city parks. But the Corps would push nutrient-laced soil directly into the current knowing full well it’s headed to the Gulf. 

I think environmentalists are backing the idea more because they want the project than because they really think soil dumping is ok.

Richard Oswald
This field was flat before the flood. The water took away the soil and sent it on its way to the Gulf of Mexico.

Everything in America is about politics these days, which makes it pretty hard to come to a rational consensus on anything. Everyone sticks to their guns, citing their own experts without ever really hearing the other side. 

This whole thing reminds me of the talk Dad had with me when I was a teenager, the same advice he said his dad gave him. You see, like most growing boys, Dad may have broken a rule or two. He feared I might do the same. 

So the family wisdom we shared that day was, “Do as I say, not as I do.” 

That sounds like the same thing I heard at the hearing from the Corps.

Some of the people who testified didn’t want the chute at all even though the Corps agreed to point it a different direction, so the levee wouldn’t be in the line of fire. But up and down the river there are concerns that these deep chutes along both sides of the main channel weaken levees and make flooding worse. That can also cause erosion and soil loss. But that’s nothing new.

The soil on my river bottom farm was built by nature over thousands of years. There are at least seven different types of soil visible across 176 acres. 

Aerial photos taken back in the day when we plowed show filled-in river channels highlighted by varied sepia shades writhing every which way. Most recently, in the 2011 flood, the river brought us more new soil (good) along with sand (bad). University of Missouri Extension tested a sample of the newly accreted soil and called it high PH, coarse silt loam and some very fine sand washed out of uplands, upstream. 

I call it pretty good dirt. 

It’s hard to say when that dirt first washed away from up north. It may have been lying in the bottom of the river for decades, or it might have come from erosion as a result of last year’s heavy spring rains in Montana. 

The guy who had it before me probably didn’t want to give it up. Now, for the time being at least, it’s mine.

One man’s loss is another man’s gain. 

Last year on other farms nearby, the river chewed away big chunks of square, flat fields and carried them away. Prolonged flows of floodwater, lasting from last June through much of October, were responsible for that. Flooding may have been unavoidable, but it was conducted under the auspices of the US Army Corps of Engineers. 

Richard Oswald
A farmer argues before the Missouri Clean Water Commission against the Corps’ plan to cut river chutes on the Missouri and dump the soil into the river.
That soil is gone from here for good.

I’ve no-tilled for close to 30 years, and we’ve always maintained fields as best we could to hold our soil in place. We don’t give it up willingly. It has to be taken from us by wind or rain. 

Still, no matter how humans try to counter acts of nature, we come up short. But that doesn’t stop us from trying, because perhaps the greatest aspiration of every farmer is to build the soil back better than the way he found it.

At the hearing I heard an environmentalist (there were catcalls from the back of the room, farmers I assume) speak in favor of Corps soil dumping because upstream soil loss renews marshes and wetlands down below. There were others who favored the project because of better bird habitat or recreation. 

Every one of them loves the idea of returning to a wild river. But none of them could possibly have known the Missouri as it was before dredging, rock dikes, and levees. In those days the river flowed at will from bluff to bluff. New channels were cut and old ones filled in. Soil gushed almost like water. My farm verifies that. Even towns were lost, like Sonora in Atchison County when the channel suddenly switched sides and the whole settlement went into the river. 

Highways can’t cross a wild river. Industry can’t exist. And farm economies can’t grow there. The numbers of people who want to paddle and portage the valley aren’t enough to replace what civilization would lose in terms of commerce and food production. 

Put simply, returning the river to a completely wild state would place a tourniquet around the nation’s flow of food.

With the population of the earth growing every day we should remember failed ancient civilizations that wasted resources unto their own extinction, like the Nordic settlers Jared Diamond wrote about, who treated Greenland’s thin top soil the same as their own back home. It didn’t work because they didn’t recognize the importance of climate, conservation, renewal, and preservation. 

One thing environmentalists and farmers have in common is that we are happiest in our existence with the elements and nature. We love our independent solitude and the satisfaction of successfully nurturing and harvesting a crop. 

None of us really get what we want by bulldozing topsoil into the river. Even so, the decision is out of our hands. Now it’s up to the folks in Jefferson City, the state capital.

I’m hoping the Missouri Clean Water Commission lives up to its name.

Richard Oswald is a fifth generation farmer, president of the Missouri Farmers Union and a regular Daily Yonder columnist.

 

 

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