Extreme weather events are real. Whether you believe in climate change or resist the science that supports it, the occurrence of back to back blizzards, heavy rain events, catastrophic flooding and deep cold waves of the past winter can’t be denied.
Nor can the droughts and heat waves that sparked forest fires and scorched crops in the summer of 2018.
The recent “bomb cyclone” that devastated much of Nebraska and the severe flooding all along the Missouri River have merely added to the intensity of the financial struggles of farmers and ranchers who have already been hurt by a long downturn in commodity prices and damaged by political trade wars.
As recently as May 1, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has said he doesn’t believe that another round of aid to farmers will be necessary to offset losses from export markets that have been shut off by tariffs and trade disputes.
So far, there has been little to no federal response to help farmers hit by extreme weather events. FEMA has been largely missing in action in small towns and rural areas across Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois and northeast Kansas where 50-year floods have become routine events. Many farmers in these areas will not be able to plant a crop for the 2019 harvest and some won’t be able to plant for 2020.
It seems reasonable to question the management of the entire Missouri-Mississippi River system in the wake of the disasters that are occurring regularly. The current flood control measures were put in place more than seven decades ago. The system of reservoirs, locks and dams for navigation have created not just a flood control system but a recreational system, a wildlife resource system and more. Much of the management questioning during the 2019 flooding has centered on what gets priority and when.
Without a doubt, priority should go to flood control at times of annual snowmelt, heavy precipitation events and other weather leading to flooding.
Beyond optimum management, there is also the question of how climate change might be affecting flooding events and whether or not another look needs to be taken at how to capture high flows of fresh water and store it for use when the droughts that are almost as common as the floods strike the river system.
Is there a way to move water from where there is too much and store it in places where there is too little? We could all agree that we do not need more water in the ocean. Nor do we need our rich topsoils and crop nutrients in the hypoxic zone at the mouth of the Mississippi River in the Gulf of Mexico. But is there a way to stop this from happening?
There is no question that construction of new reservoirs is an endeavor that would be costly and hard fought. Land acquisitions for the existing system took years of litigation. But could there be a system that transfers water without construction of new storage on the existing system?
The state of Kansas has been engaged for a decade in the effort to formulate a 50-year Vision for the Future of Water. Many suggestions for conservation, stream bank stabilization, silting-in prevention and other measures have been made and policies implemented. It’s time to develop a similar vision for the Great Plains states that rely on the Missouri-Mississippi system for flood control, drinking and industrial water, recreation, and more.
There may be little political will to undertake such a huge task in the current environment. Then again, such a task might be exactly what is needed to bring attention to a critical problem. The security of the food supply of much of the country is literally at stake. Almost half the farmland in the U.S. lies in the Missouri and Mississippi Basins. Natural disasters in those basins will reverberate through the entire economy in coming months. We ignore this at our own peril.