Twitter-transmitted pictures of spring 2019 in the Midwest have made my feed a stream of continuous heartbreak. Video after video of flooded fields and homes, stuck tractors, ruined crops, with pictures of tornado damage serving as the visual exclamation point to the slow-moving disaster that we’re living in the central part of the nation. We’ve have several hundred acres under water on our farm, our fields are dotted with wet spots and ruts, and we’re the fortunate ones, given what I see on my social media feed. It is a helpless feeling to watch as farmers and homeowners throughout the Midwest suffer from this disaster of historic proportions.
Farmers are rightly convinced that the flooding damage would be less if the Missouri River were managed differently. Not everyone agrees.
Here in Missouri, our leading newspaper has already run several articles making the argument that trying to control the Missouri is a fool’s game, that we need to “reconnect the river to the floodplain” and resign ourselves to yearly flooding along the “Mighty Missouri.” This fight is not new, but lately we’ve added the climate change warriors, who don’t exactly say that flooding is Gaia’s retribution for the stubborn refusal of flooded Missouri to sign on to the Green New Deal, but they come mighty close.
I recently visited with a journalist from New York. She was young, sympathetic, friendly, and operating from a body of agricultural knowledge that could only be described as anorexic. She was also telegraphing her punches, so soon enough, here came the climate change question: “was this year’s flooding caused by climate change?”
Oh, goodness, I’m sure I don’t know. For the sake of argument, let’s agree that it was. What possible difference does it make to how we respond? Even if we pass the Green New Deal, we’re still, as I understand the science, in for a prolonged period of climate change brought about by the elevated carbon already in the atmosphere. If in fact, extreme weather events are getting worse, isn’t the sensible response to prepare for those extremes?
This almost religious belief in the ability of humans to change the climate would seem to me to be in tension with the idea that we can’t engineer flood protection. If we can by accident change the climate of the world, surely we can design a system that gives us better protection against repeated flooding than that we are experiencing. Like modern medicine, agriculture is a sterling example of changing nature to improve lives.
Only the Missouri River is so powerful, so elemental that human intervention is wasted. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial page’s goal in life is to make sure that the first flood protection on the Missouri is the 50-foot flood wall protecting the city of St. Louis. The editorial page rarely bothers to weigh the costs and benefits of flood protection, satisfied with a blanket assertion that flood protection can never work.
Mark Twain is never far from the minds to Missouri journalists when writing about the river, waiting in the wings with an aphorism or character just right for treating levees and flood control as human folly, just right for skewering by the famous Twain wit. Two generations of St. Louis editorialists have not been able to resist, quoting any number of grizzled river guides channeling “Life On The Mississippi,” and marveling at the untamed beast that is the Missouri River. Of course, no essay in this vein is complete without references to the various studies glibly recommending wholesale buyouts of private property along the river, Exodus style movement of people, and the sacrifice to the river gods of about a third of the cropland in the state of Missouri.
Little mention is made of the infrastructure in the bottoms, the thousands of miles of roads and railroads that knit our country together. This year, due to the flooding, the central part of the United States is no longer connected from the north to the south, or the east to the west. The decision to build roads, farms, businesses, and power plants in the river bottoms was made long ago and despite the best efforts of Samuel Clemens wannabes, we’re going to continue to try to protect lives and property. The challenge before us is to do it competently, to do it as well as we did a generation ago, when floods were rare.
We’ve made changes in river management in the recent past, changes that have lessened our ability to control high water. We’ve destroyed structures that helped to keep the channel clear, we’ve added “chutes” and slow-moving areas that have allowed the bottom of the river channel to fill, effectively reducing the levee heights and protection. We’ve changed the way we manage upstream reservoirs, arguably harming our ability to hold back water during times of excess precipitation. None of these actions are solely responsible for the increased frequency of flooding, but all of them contribute to our vulnerability.
All of these actions were in response to the Endangered Species Act; all of them were undertaken to improve habitat for fish and birds that live along and in the river. None of the species have been recovered while billions of dollars have been spent attempting to recreate Eden within the confines of levees and reservoirs. We’ve tried to split the baby, and all we’ve managed to do is increase the danger of floods without improving the lives of the pallid sturgeon or the other endangered species. An expensive and tragic experiment has failed, and it’s time to admit that fact, and concentrate river management on the simple goal of protecting lives and property.
We won’t always be successful. Mark Twain was, it turns out, at least partially correct in his estimation that we “cannot tame that lawless stream.” Or, at least we can’t totally tame the river at a cost that we can pay. But in the early years of river management, we did much better than we have in the recent past. Not only that, but it’s hard not to draw comparisons between the situation above St. Louis and the Mississippi floodplain below St. Louis. There is a clear difference in the management of the two river systems, and a clear difference in results as well.
Twain also said: “There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.” Twain could have been talking about the science that led to our ill-fated experiment in species management, one that continues to cost lives and property along the Missouri River. And no, I couldn’t resist the Twain temptation either.
About the author: Blake Hurst is a third-generation farmer and president of the Missouri Farm Bureau board of directors.