Letter From Langdon: Talking Dirt

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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?


[imgcontainer left] [img:soilpennies.jpg] [source]Richard Oswald

Last year’s flood on the Missouri River covered my fields in silt. You can see here how deep the silt is on one of my fields. The change is mine!

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.

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.