Letter from Langdon: 40 Feet High and Rising

With mismanagement and aging infrastructure, the Army Corps’ flood-control strategy on the Missouri amounts to yelling “look out below” to the folks downstream. For farmers in the path of the record-setting wall of water, the results are predictable – and catastrophic.

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Anyone living next a stream, creek, or river will tell you that in times of flood, it’s important to know how high’s the water.

Even Johnny Cash.

In these modern post-Cash times on many of America’s waterways, the Corps of Engineers can tell on an hourly basis not only how high it is but how fast it’s rising, what the crest will be, and when.

But apparently, even with all the combined knowledge of the National Weather Service and Army Corps of Engineers, and with all the lakes and dams and levees built in the last 70 to 90 years, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t prevent floods from happening again. Which, of course, was the whole point of building that stuff in the first place.

And it’s happening more and more so that now the whole thing boils down to an early warning system for “Floodageddon.”

My home was built by my parents on a high portion of “second bottom” in the Missouri River valley in Atchison County, Missouri. For 80 years the river never touched it. Second bottoms are accreted soil shoved up and out by the prehistoric river … or maybe glaciers. People had built homes there for decades before my parents built theirs in the late 1930’s. That was before flood control on the Missouri. Occasionally in those golden days of settlers staking claims on new lands, someone built too close to the river, learning the hard way that waters rise come springtime. There are stories here of those modest homes being placed on runners and skidded up to higher ground with draft horses or mules drawing them along. Even St. Peter’s Lutheran Church of Langdon was moved to higher ground.

Then the big public works started. Dams and levees were built to slow floods and keep them inside manmade boundaries. And for the most part it worked. Other than a flash snowmelt flood on fragile, newly built levees in 1952, we were safe from flooding for 41 years until 1993, during one of the wettest summers on record. After that we were safe again for 18 years until 2011, when massive flooding, brought about by Army Corps mismanagement, destroyed my crops and kept me away from my home for four months.

Now, eight years later, the river is back—bigger and taller than ever.

Oswald’s farm on the upper tier of the Missouri River valley this month (left) vs. the farm during normal water levels (right). (Photos submitted by Richard Oswald)

At first I was optimistic about this spring. The Corps had carried the river high all fall and winter, making room for rain and snowmelt that was sure to come. A judge found in favor of farmers who sued the Corps for its mismanagement and failure to adhere to basic tenets of flood control.

In fact, precipitation combined with high river levels brought about by slow and steady Corps releases of upstream water offered challenges to a timely harvest last fall. That’s why some 2018 crops still remained in scattered fields a few days ago as farmers waited for fields to firm.

But, in the last week, the Corps said we were headed for an all-time new high crest of just over 46 feet. Most of it would come from below Gavins Point, which is beyond the Corps’ control. The flood was the result of rapid snowmelt and rain. That crest would be higher than 2011 at 44.79 feet. Sandbagging would be pointless, and no one would be permitted on levees during the rise. But they also said it would be fast up and fast down because it was runoff from a single event. Most levees in good repair could possibly stand up to the brief overflow being predicted. Unfortunately, that didn’t take into account a 92-year-old earthen dam on Nebraska’s Niobrara River, where something called a bomb cyclone ruined the dam, releasing a wall of water onto farms and pastures, washing away crops and livestock, and finding its way into Gavins Point dam at the forefront of Missouri River flood control.

Gavins Point is the last line of defense against Missouri River flooding in four states. It’s designed to meter upstream water into the river, not contain it. So when big water hits Big Muddy at Gavins Point, about all the authorities at Gavins Point can do is say “look out below.”

On Thursday, March 14, that’s what they did.

The new estimated crest at Brownville, Nebraska, was set at over 48 feet. That’s 5 feet above the top of our levee. It would be huge. Levees above us fell like dominoes as water cascaded down from Gavins Point, falling one foot per mile. From Gavins Point to my house at Langdon, the river became a waterfall 200 feet tall.

Adding to our misery was that before it got to me, the Missouri flood was joined by more water from rivers Elkhorn, Platte, and Nishnabotna.

The good news, if you can call it that, is that although the new crest beat the 2011 record, it never made it to the forecast high. That’s because levees above us collapsing under the weight of record water flows allowed flood plains above to absorb, if only temporarily, part of the excess. They flattened out the wave by a foot or two. Our new record high crest came in at about 220,000 cubic feet per second and taller than a four-story building at 45.48 feet at Brownville.

I haven’t been back home since the water came in, but I’ve seen pictures taken from airplanes overhead. My home, built by my parents, the place where my sister and I were born, where I raised my own family, is likely ruined. FEMA rules dictate that homes damaged by flood cannot be rebuilt if repairs exceed half their “real” value — unless they’re raised above the flood plain. For years that’s where my home was. Above the flood plain. While the current official flood plain remains well under this year’s water levels it’s obvious that is no longer so. And with damaged levees leaving us open to more flooding once the traditional snowmelt from the Dakotas and mountains in Montana arrives, it seems unlikely that traditional spring crops will be planted, or damaged homes on the flood plain repaired any time soon.

For some of us there is legitimate hope that crop insurance will pay if planting is prevented by weather events. And there’s always the chance that Congress might pass a disaster bill offering help to rebuild those things of mine and my neighbors that were destroyed.

Sometimes it just comes down to politics.

I remember during a sand-bagging operation against another flood when the National Guard pulled in to help, one of my neighbors said to his friend, “Look, Dick, here comes Hilary, and she’s got the checkbook!”

But that was a different time.

Traffic that normally zips along I-29 detours through the middle of Auburn, Nebraska, on U.S. Highway 75, which locals have taken to calling I-75. (Photo by Richard Oswald)

Deep in the dysfunctional political mix these days are talks about improvements to infrastructure. While most of the time that refers to highways and bridges, flood control and navigation on our nations waterways falls under that heading, too. Longer, straighter wider smoother highways are at the top of a list where lowly citizens like me and my problems barely register. But the impact of my disaster is clearly visible on old U.S. Highways 75 in Nebraska and 59 in Missouri. Locals have taken to calling those two-lane roads Interstate 75 and Interstate 59, because they now carry the cars and trucks that used to zip by on the superhighway.

Flooding is everyone’s problem, even on a mountain top, when transportation, goods, and services are impacted.

Few people would consider my ’30’s era home state of the art. Fewer still would consider a highway or bridge of the same vintage to be so. But we are relying on systems for navigation and flood control in America today that are just that old.

Politics should be the furthest thing from homeless flood victims’ minds as they mourn their loss and face uncertainty. That’s when traditional farmer skepticism toward people who say “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” turns more toward anticipation and hope that they actually might. Even some rigidly conservative farmers are turning back the clock with references not to progressives’ latest label “climate change” but flooding caused by “global warming,” that scorned and seemingly forgotten early label for carbon-dioxide-related floods, droughts, and rising sea levels. It’s possible some of the same people were making jokes last winter about standing in 15 inches of fluffy freshly fallen global warming.

When terminology and ideology become deciding factors of cooperation or lack of it, it’s difficult to agree on a solution, let alone the problem.

But in springtime, each inch of snow or drop of rain is just another nail in the coffin of flood control, and no one laughs when global warming is waist deep on top of a levee.

Richard Oswald is a fifth-generation Missouri farmer from Langdon. He is membership and policy director for the Missouri Farmers Union.

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