A Big, Muddy Project Alright
Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Floods are inexorable, and inevitable, but they’ve got nothing on environmentalists. Farmers and families who live along the Mississippi should prepare themselves for a decades-long battle.
Bill Mitsch is not afraid of big ideas. Mitsch, head of the Ohio State University Olentangy River Wetland Research Park, is using the catastrophic flooding this spring to recommend the establishment of a 1.5 million acre wetland park along the Mississippi River. That many acres would be a “park” about the size of Delaware, replacing some of the most productive farmland in the world with a swamp.
According to Mitsch, we could end flooding along the Mississippi by destroying the levees and letting the newly formed “park” flood. And we can end cancer by calling it broccoli, but people would still die from the disease. The flood of 2011 has covered some 3 million acres. That’s a tragedy, but Mitsch would make it better for now and eternity by exposing half those acres to flooding, not once every half century, but each and every year.
Thousands of families make their living by farming in the area; millions of people eat the food produced there; but never mind. According to Mitsch and three other professors at Southern Illinois University (who have written to President Obama recommending this idea), society will actually benefit economically from the establishment of the wetland. Thousands of people will tour the newly inundated area, and tourism dollars will rapidly replace the lost agricultural production.
I would like to note that no professors recommended leaving the levees open around New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
There is, according to these academics, a very large slice of the populace that misses malaria and longs to return to the primordial ooze. What of the thousands of farm families displaced? Well, they should have known better than to have farmed there!
Roll, tide, roll. Floods are inexorable, and inevitable, but they’ve got nothing on environmentalists. Farmers and families who live along the Mississippi should prepare themselves for a decades-long battle, if the recent experiences of Missourians who live along the Missouri River are any guide.
In a recent proposal for increasing the size of a wetlands restoration scheme along the Missouri River known as the Big Muddy project, the Fish and Wildlife Service proclaims as a matter of fact that many farmers in the area were ready to retire when the Service began buying them out. The actual story is a bit more complicated.
Farmers in the area have seen 500,000 cubic feet a second of water flow through their farms, an amount of water greater than the flow of the Missouri River.
Most of the area is divided into levee districts that maintain levees and internal drainage. When the federal government begins buying land within a district, their incentives are different than the incentives faced by private landowners—the Fish and Wildlife Service cares not a whit about drainage or river protection, and the Service may no longer pay its share of maintaining levees and drainage ditches. As more and more area within a district is owned by the federal government, fewer landowners are left to do the things that must be done to protect the land from floods. In a game of musical chairs, private landowners must either sell or be drowned out.
The Big Muddy has been a dream of environmentalists since the Great Flood of 1993, and the Fish and Wildlife Service can hardly let the livelihoods of a few farm families stand in the way of swamps as far as the eye can see. The Service has purchased around 16,000 acres so far as a part of the Big Muddy, and their new goal is 60,000 acres, although history would tell us that the land hunger of the federal government is unlikely to be appeased by a mere 60,000 acres.
Wetland restoration projects along the Missouri are slated to take 40 years and cost around $3 billion. As a part of the development project, the Fish and Wildlife Service is dumping millions of tons of sediment into the Missouri; at the same time private parties are being fined for releasing sediment into the river. Along with the reputed environmental benefits and the expected diversion of tourists from Yellowstone and Yosemite to the stinking mosquito- and snake-infested wetlands in Missouri, this project will also improve the sex life of the pallid sturgeon, a fish on the endangered species list.
A very large slice of the populace misses malaria and longs to return to the primordial ooze, according to these academics.
At least part of the land under water in this year’s flooding was inundated after the Corps destroyed a section of the Bird’s Point Levee in southern Missouri. This was by design; the levee system includes spillways as a remedy for historic floods like the one we’ve seen this spring. The levee has only been intentionally breached once before, in 1937. Farmers in the area have seen 500,000 cubic feet a second of water flow through their farms, an amount of water greater than the flow of the Missouri River. The land affected by this current will be severely damaged by the flood: scoured in some places and covered in several feet of sand in others.
In their letter to President Obama, Jim Garvey, director of the Southern Illinois Fisheries and Illinois Aquaculture Center, and two of his colleagues note that these acres are now “marginal,” thus all the more easy to purchase. One thing is for sure. If, as the professors recommend, the levee is not repaired, farmers exposed to flooding each and every year will be more than willing sellers to government wetland developers.
I’m reminded of the old joke about the young man who murdered his parents, then threw himself on the mercy of the court because he was an orphan. The government flooded the ground, and now the professors would like to take advantage of that fact.
Wetland restoration projects along the Missouri are slated to take 40 years and cost $3 billion.
At the risk of appearing cynical, I would like to note that no professors recommended leaving the levees open around New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Some places are just more important than others, and the people who live in places like Pinhook and East Prairie, Missouri, are clearly going it alone. Even the Wall Street Journal editorial page is urging a reevaluation of how we manage the Mississippi, and people who farm in floodplains are likely to be the losers as we move forward.
There are 10 million acres dry today that were under water in the pre-levee Great Flood of 1927. Those acres will produce billions of dollars of crops this year that would not have been produced without the protection of the levees along the Mississippi River. It doesn’t seem to matter. We seem to live in a “trust fund” society unwilling to maintain the infrastructure that was built by our parents and grandparents. Levees and dams are distinctly out of fashion, and a retreat from protecting people and their property from the river is the order of the day.
There is an assumption here, though, that demands at least some reflection before we move away from protecting land to a policy of letting the river flow willy-nilly. A plentiful supply of food at affordable prices is a given when this “conversation” about how we manage the river is joined. No one questions whether there will be consequences to letting millions of acres of fertile bottom ground return to cottonwoods and cattails. This is ground that has water easily available only 10 feet below the surface of the ground, water that is replenished each and every year, the very definition of sustainability. It’s close to cheap transportation and can grow almost any crop. Total U.S. crop production area is around 200 million acres. If we establish this wetlands park, we’ll lose 1.5 million acres of that area and up to 15 million acres in flood years. Not all acres are created equal. These are some of the most productive farms in the world. We’re now suffering from our unwillingness to utilize our petroleum reserves in much of the United States. If we follow the same path in the production of food, we should expect the same result: higher prices and an increased reliance on foreign suppliers.
Blake Hurst is a Missouri farmer.
FURTHER READING: Hurst has also written “Our Real Food Problem” “21st-century Land Rush,” “The Sweet ‘n Lowdown on GM Crops”and “Give Thanks for This Harvest.” Steven F. Hayward recently published the “2011 Almanac of Environmental Trends” and Jonathan H. Adler and contributors wrote “Rebuilding the Ark: New Perspectives on Endangered Species Act Reform.”
Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.