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May 17, 2011

Mississippi Flooding Harms Agriculture in Several US States

by Greg Flakus

Flooding along the Mississippi River has ruined crops, damaged farmland and delayed barge traffic in parts of the southern United States.  Officials say diversion of some of the water through spillways in Louisiana, though, eventually will ease the flow and help speed the return to normalcy. Closings of some sections of the river are considered only temporary.

The U.S. Coast Guard has shut some small stretches of the Mississippi River to barge traffic in recent days and has allowed only one barge at a time to pass through the stretch of river near Vidalia, Louisiana, where levees are close to being topped. The passage of the barges produces a wake that can cause water to splash over the levees, making local residents anxious about their property.

The temporary measures, however, have not had a significant effect on barge traffic or on ship operations farther downriver. At the Port of Louisiana, north of New Orleans, ships loaded with grain have come downstream from farm areas in the Midwest and nearby southern states for international delivery. Much of America's grain harvest will come down the river in the coming months after the flood waters subside.

The Port of New Orleans has had few disruptions to its operations, according to spokesman Chris Bonura.

“We are continuing to handle international commerce on the lower Mississippi River," said Bonura. "The ships are coming in from all foreign ports. We are handling that cargo. Our ability to distribute that cargo inland has been somewhat diminished by the lack of barge traffic through the Vidalia area. But we expect in that area, and possibly in other areas along the Mississippi River, we could see these intermittent closures.”

Bonura says that unless there is a closure of a week or more, he does not expect any significant impact on the ports or river barge traffic, which not only brings grain down the Mississippi, but also carries fertilizer, chemicals and other products upstream.

Randy Ouzts with Horizon Ag, a seed technology company in Memphis, Tennessee, said high water in his area has prevented the loading or unloading of barges.

“The issue we are having at the moment is wheat delivery, and also fertilizer and fuel deliveries," said Ouzts. "And the problem is loading.  The facilities were not built to accommodate this much water.”

Ouzts said he has never seen flooding as bad as this year's, and that even farmers with fields in relatively high areas are suffering crop losses as a result.

“We lose acres to flooding every year, but it is always a situation where the water will go down in time for us to plant. And people sometimes have to use alternative means to get the crop in, like aerial seeding. But this is unprecedented because of the amount of water that is backed up and out over areas that normally do not flood,” he said.

Ouzts said farmers are seeking government assistance to help them get through this year's disaster and come back even stronger next year. “There are meetings going on right now with growers who were unable to plant or who have lost crops. If there is federal funding, it is never enough, but it is better than nothing.”

The flooding has been especially frustrating for farmers because prices for grain are relatively high this year, and many of them had good crops almost ready for harvest when the flood waters ruined them. Although flooding along the southern Mississippi River is a natural event, caused by snow melt and heavy rains in the north, farmers in the Achafalaya basin of Louisiana are losing many of their crops to a deliberate flood. It's a result of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opening floodgates at the Morganza spillway in recent days to alleviate water flow on the lower Mississippi that could devastate the cities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and damage important infrastructure for oil, gas and shipping.

Marty Frey and his three brothers farm some 2,400 hectares in southern Louisiana. They now have about 260 hectares underwater, not far from where the floodgates were opened. But because they had insurance and were able to harvest some of their crops before the spillway was opened, Frey is optimistic they will avoid catastrophe. In a telephone interview, though, Frey said he is concerned about the rising water inundating his home.

"I am actually sitting on top of the levee now, looking at the water flowing by. And as hard as it is to see it, it is much easier to deal with than to have it inside my house. All four of us live right in the area, the levee is not [even] 100 yards [i.e., about 92 meters] in front of my house and the Mississippi levee is about two miles [i.e., 3.2 kilometers] east of my home. So the failure of one of those could be devastating, absolutely devastating."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which built the spillway and levee systems decades ago to help control floods along the Mississippi River, often is criticized when it deliberately floods areas like the Achafalaya basin.

But Frey says people who farm here knew the risks when they bought land and that they are thankful for the flood-control system that includes the Morganza spillway.

“It is phenomenal. This structure was built in the 1950s with the foresight of saying we are going to have to be able to relieve this water.  And levees were built in the '50s," he said. "I mean, yes, everybody can question day-to-day decisions that they make, but we would not be able to farm and be as successful as we are without what the Corps has done.”

The Freys grow rice and harvest crawfish from ponds on their properties. Crawfish is a freshwater crustacean that is an essential part of Louisiana cuisine. The spillway is a good place for rice and crawfish, and Marty Frey said that if it floods only once every 30 years or so, he believes it is well worth continuing to work there. The last time the spillway was opened was in 1973.