In the wake of extensive flooding across eastern Nebraska this spring, many have drawn comparisons with the flood of 2011 along the Missouri River.
However, as Scott Olson, who farms along the Missouri River near Tekamah, Neb., puts it, "The two floods are totally different, but there are some similarities."
Here's a breakdown of the two, and how they've affected agriculture differently:
• Scale. The 2019 flood is the most widespread disaster in Nebraska history — and that includes when compared with the 2011 flood. At its peak, 81 (87%) of Nebraska's 93 counties had declared an emergency because of the 2019 flooding. That's due not only to flooding on the Missouri River, but also its tributaries — including the Niobrara, Platte and Elkhorn rivers.
"In 2011, it was basically a narrow corridor on either side of the Missouri River, and outside of that, it varied from a couple miles to a 5-mile-wide strip," says John Wilson, Nebraska Extension educator in Burt County. “This year, it affected a much wider area. In 2011, it was like Nebraska got shot with a rifle. It was more precise. In 2019, we got shot by a shotgun with widespread damage."
The effect was different for counties on the river south of Omaha. This region has more levees than counties farther north, and more of those levees breached in 2019 compared with 2011. According to the Army Corps of Engineers website, more than 500 miles of levees on the Missouri, Platte and Elkhorn rivers and their tributaries experienced significant flood damage in 2019.
"Few levees on our side of the river broke in 2011, but the water level was so high we had some crop loss because of that," says Gary Lesoing, Nebraska Extension educator in Nemaha County. "There were several thousands of acres this year impacted because the levee broke down by Peru. The whole bottom was flooded on the Nebraska side this year that wasn't flooded in 2011."
• Duration. In 2011, the flooding lasted much longer — although there are counties south of Omaha where the flooding has lasted much longer than other areas in 2019. In 2019, the river crested a reported 4 feet higher than 2011 at Plattsmouth in Cass County.
"2011 was an abnormal flood,” Wilson says. “Just in Burt County, there were 20,000 acres underwater for three months. In 2019, it was more typical — the water came up, crested and receded. In 2011, the devastation was much more severe, much more complete in the areas it affected."
• Preparation time. The 2019 flood happened without much time to prepare. Donette Jackson, who farms with her husband, Larry, near Tekamah in Burt County, had to evacuate her home March 15. Five days later, they were able to get back to their home.
"On March 14, we got a message saying they were kicking [releases at Gavins Point Dam] up to 90,000 cubic feet per second, and at midnight, they kicked it up to 100,000. There was no warning," Jackson says.
As of late April, releases at Gavins Point had come down to about 55,000.
"We didn't have time to sandbag,” Jackson says. “We didn't have time to put plugs in our walkout basement. We didn't have time to plug the holes in the floor drain or the shower. We did in '11. We had enough warning that we prepared and got all our furniture out and loaded in a semi."
With a lack of advanced warning, several farmers with stored grain couldn’t move grain — and several bins burst, rendering much of the grain worthless.
"In 2011, we knew the flood was coming,” Wilson says. “We had our first flood meeting two weeks before anything other than some lowlands were affected. People had a chance to move grain and move livestock. This year, it was so sudden there wasn't time for preparation."
• Causal factors. There are several factors that led to the flood events in 2019, as well as in 2011. While farmers and landowners along the Missouri River have been vocal critics of how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has managed the Missouri River and its reservoirs leading up to the 2011 and 2019 floods, many agree Mother Nature played a bigger role this year than in 2011.
In November 2010, three upstream reservoirs on the Missouri River had reached the exclusive flood stage where the Corps is required, according to the Missouri River Master Manual, to manage releases to reduce the flooding. In December, the volume in those reservoirs fell to just less than the exclusive flood stage, but from November through February and March, flows still weren't increased — which critics say would have reduced the effect of flooding.
In spring 2011, higher-than-normal snowfall, followed by unusually rapid snowmelt and high rainfall in the northern Plains and Rockies, triggered prolonged flooding downstream. By then, it was too late to release water proactively for flood prevention.
"The flood of 2011 was a manmade flood," says Olson, one of the farmers along the Missouri River who is a plaintiff in an ongoing lawsuit against the Corps of Engineers. “The Corps is in the process of dechannelizing the Missouri River, and they got caught with too much rain up north and didn't have a choice. They had a lot of extra water, but they should have had more room for that water and shouldn't have had to release as much as they did."
In 2019, Mother Nature played a bigger role. While water bodies above Gavins Point contributed to flooding, water bodies below, such as the Platte and Elkhorn rivers, also contributed.
Still, landowners say the dechannelization of the river played a role in 2019. For example, pumping sand into the middle of the river to create sandbars for birds such as the piping plover and least tern, and cutting wing dikes — structures that jut out perpendicular to the bank on the inside of the curve of the river to create habitat for pallid sturgeon — have contributed to slowing the flow of the river, erosion of river banks and encroachment on adjacent farm ground.
"We got a triple whammy from Mother Nature [in 2019]," Wilson says. "The first was abnormally cold temperatures from mid-January to early March. This caused the ground to remain frozen and any snow that fell didn’t melt gradually. The second was the record or near record snowfall in many locations in February.
“The final ‘whammy’ which lead to the flooding started about March 11 with warmer temperatures and the snow started melting, but on the 12th and 13th when we got a lot of rain, it sped up the melting. If we hadn't had the rain along with it, and it would've just been snowmelt, we would've probably had some flooding but not to this extent. It was kind of a perfect storm, where everything stacked up and worked against us."