Sec. Vilsack seeks levee fix as downstream flooding conditions worsen

By Stewart Doan


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WASHINGTON, May 11 - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack sent a letter to Army Secretary John McHugh Wednesday encouraging him to rebuild the Birds Point-New Madrid levee in Missouri as soon as conditions allow.

The levee was intentionally broken in three locations to open a 30-mile-long floodway to alleviate pressure on the swollen Mississippi River. As a result, approximately 135,000 acres of cropland was flooded, crippling the livelihoods of hundreds of farm families.

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As yet, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has not committed to rebuilding the levee once the flood waters recede. 

In the letter, Vilsack urged the Corps to make a public commitment to rebuild the levee, saying, “The more quickly the levee can be rebuilt, the sooner our farmers and ranchers can be back in their homes, back in their fields, and back on their feet.”

Downstream, the Mighty Mississippi crested this week at its highest level at both Memphis, Tenn., and Helena, Ark., since 1937 and is forecast to reach record heights later this week in Louisiana and Mississippi, submerging several hundred thousand more acres of farmland on top of the estimated 1 million acres in Arkansas and 500,000 acres in Tennessee already inundated.

Farmers along the river and its tributaries predict it'll be sometime in June before the water recedes and their fields are repaired, limiting their planting options.

“There's still a lot of land flooded in these river bottom areas on both sides of the levee and it's a real mess, quite a bit of damage,” said Ted Glaub, who manages farmland from the Missouri Bootheel to Louisiana.       

“Wherever the current comes in, it's going to take all of your topsoil away and that's going to create totally new soils,” he explained.

About 80 miles to the west, Perry Galloway, who farms about 7,000 acres of higher ground near Arkansas' White River, feels like he's already done an entire growing season's worth of work, but it's only mid-May.

“It's been very stressful.”

Galloway planted his corn at the end of March and was ready to move on to rice when 14 inches of rain sidelined him for four weeks. He got his cotton planted on time but was only able to seed 125 acres of rice. The rest of his land will go to soybeans.

It could've been much worse.

“There are people in the floodplain who had 100% of their crops planted in late March-early April and they lost every bit of it - thousands of acres. They'll have to replant every acre,” Galloway said.

Some of his neighbors were unable to empty their grain bins before the river encircled them. One producer lost 175,000 bushels of old-crop rice valued at $900,000.

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