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Let it flow: flood-weary farmers turn their land back to the river

These Parts/Wapello, IA



Spring was dry in eastern Iowa this year. Sandbars lay exposed in the channels of rivers that last summer were inundating whole towns. Farmers were hauling away the logs, tree roots, and sand left by last year's flood. Long dust plumes marked the movement of tractors putting in the corn crop.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office in Rock Island, which is responsible for the levees on the big river and its tributaries between Guttenberg, Iowa, and Hannibal, Missouri, was furiously hiring contractors to fill the holes scoured out of the levee system by the high water. At this point, repairs are either completed or well under way on every damaged levee in the area--except one. And that one won't be repaired. The holes cut by the high water will stay open. Floods will flow in and out as they did before the Corps of Engineers started trying to tame the Mississippi valley.

This particular earthen bank arcs around the inner rim of a horseshoe bend in the Iowa River just above where the river flows into the Mississippi and just below the town of Wapello, Iowa. The two ends of the levee are anchored on high bluffs. Inside the protecting wall of the levee is a 3,000-acre piece of floodplain that the Corps of Engineers knows as Levee District Eight and that local people know as Mud Bottoms. A levee has stood on the riverbank at Mud Bottoms for nearly 70 years. Its purpose has been to make the land safe for corn and soybean farming. But early this year the farmers of Levee District Eight, the owners of those corn and soybean fields, decided to give the floodplain back to the river.

For the farmers involved the decision was a simple matter of dollars and cents. But the dollars and cents added up the way they did because of a change in federal policy that may signal a shift away from the megalomania that has characterized the American approach to nature.

The Corps of Engineers has been fighting a battle against the Mississippi for the past century. The battle escalated in 1936 with the passage of the federal Flood Control Act. The plan was to tame the river, reduce it to the placidity of a duck pond on a corporate campus in the suburbs. The weapons in this battle were dams, locks, levees, and other "structural" approaches.

But the experience of recent years suggests that this approach is flawed. The specific objections raised by critics are that exclusive reliance on structural approaches produces gross environmental damage, is enormously expensive, and doesn't work. The levees get ever higher and longer, but floods in the Mississippi watershed get ever more frequent and severe. A 100-year flood is supposed to require conditions so rare that it will happen only once in a century, but there have been three 100-year floods on the upper Mississippi in the past 30 years.

Nobody has done the comprehensive studies that could precisely apportion the responsibility for these frequent floods, but the opinion of practically everyone who has studied the question is that much of the trouble comes from changes we have made in the watershed. The presettlement watershed included thousands of square miles of marshes, bogs, swamps, and sloughs. These wetlands soaked up heavy rains or snowmelt and released the water slowly and gradually. But Illinois has lost 90 percent of its wetlands; Iowa has lost 98 percent.

Natural uplands absorb water too, but thousands of square miles of uplands in the Mississippi watershed are now covered by roofs and pavement that pour water into storm sewers, which quickly carry it to the nearest stream.

Natural rivers are bordered by floodplains that stay dry in dry years and absorb floods in wet years. The levees are a wall between the river and its floodplain. They keep water in the main channel until it gets high enough to pour over the levee and create a catastrophe.

All these changes in the watershed have created a system that delivers water to the river very rapidly and then tries to confine it to a narrow channel. Which means that anytime we get heavier than normal rains we can expect heavy floods.

Environmentalists have traditionally pushed for a flood-control system based on more wetlands and more floodplains without levees. They would like to see many more places like Levee District Eight. A report from the federal Interagency Floodplain Management Review Committee that is currently circulating for public comment offers hope for backers of this approach. It calls for a major change in policy that would give greater consideration to environmental factors in decision making and for greater reliance on the sort of nonstructural approaches environmentalists favor.

Jack Parsons is one of the farmers who owns land in Levee District Eight. He has been around long enough to have seen--and helped pay for--lots of levee repairs. He recalls that the decision to let the river have its way had its beginnings on a day last July when he and Ed Yotter--another Mud Bottoms landowner--got their first look at what the floods of '93 had wrought. "We thought it was a catastrophic break," Parsons recalls. "The cross levee was gone. There were two or three breaks in the main levee."

None of this was very surprising. Rivers writhe across their floodplains like very slow snakes. Over the course of centuries they cut horseshoe bends and then destroy them by scouring a new channel across the tips of the horseshoe. Mud Bottoms is inside the loop of a horseshoe, so the upstream end of its protective levee stands at exactly the place where the river is seeking to cut the new channel.

Local memory varies on the question of just how often the levee at Mud Bottoms has broken, but the best estimate is 18 times since 1926. A solid, reliable Corps of Engineers number shows nine breaks between 1961 and 1993 alone. Nine breaks in 32 years works out to one break every 3.5 years. Put another way: in at least 9 out of 32 years the farmers of Mud Bottoms got no crop. "At least" is a necessary qualifier because in some cases cleaning up took so long that the crop the year after the flood was lost too. Farmers carry crop insurance, but the payoff on the policy is based on the average yield of the land. If the land produces nothing more than 25 percent of the time, the average yield goes way down and the payoff gets correspondingly smaller.

All this would not matter so much to the farmers if Mud Bottoms were protected by a levee that was built by the federal government. When government levees break the taxpayers cover 100 percent of the cost of repairs. But almost all of those levees are on the Mississippi itself, where the floodplains that are protected are larger, making it possible to justify a large government investment.

Most of the levees on tributary streams, like the Iowa, were built with private money. For these, current law provides for a government subsidy that covers 80 percent of the total cost of repairs, but 20 percent can add up to a lot of money.

Jack Parsons's first rough estimate of the landowners' share of the new repairs was $100,000. And this right on the heels of a break in 1990 that cost $50,000. And this with the expectation of another break in 3.5 years that might cost even more. While no legislation is pending that would change the 80-20 split, landowners live in constant fear that Congress will reduce the split to 60-40 or even 50-50.

A levee district is an association of landowners who have property that is protected by a specific levee or system of levees. The business of these districts is conducted democratically: each landowner member gets to vote on proposals to do maintenance or repair work. Once a vote has been taken the district has the legal authority to assess members for their share of the cost of whatever needs to be done. The usual practice is for the district to borrow money to cover costs and then pay the debt in installments that allow members to spread out their payments. This practice means that most levee districts are usually in debt.

But it happened that Levee District Eight, the Mud Bottoms district, was out of debt in the summer of 1993. The time seemed right for getting out of the levee business.

Parsons had heard that there were government programs intended to add to our dwindling stock of wetlands by buying out landowners with property that before the creation of levees, drainage ditches, or other "improvements" had been natural wetlands, and he began investigating. First he called Bob Gabeline, the largest landowner in Levee District Eight, to sound him out on the question of a buy out. As it happens, Gabeline had done some talking to Shawn Dettmann at the U.S. Soil Conservation Service office in Wapello after the 1990 flood, so he was interested. Parsons said, "Well, you're interested, and I'm interested, and Ed Yotter is interested. And with us three, that's way more than 60 percent of the land down there."

He and Yotter then met with Thomas Bell of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the manager of the Wapello district of the Mark Twain National Wildlife Refuge. Bell has been at the refuge for nearly six years, and he knows his neighbors. One of Yotter's daughters baby-sits for Bell's kids, and Parsons hunts geese on land right across the road from Bell's house, so both farmers felt comfortable approaching him.

The Twain refuge, part of the nationwide system of wildlife refuges managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service, includes several parcels of land scattered along 264 miles of the Mississippi River. The refuge land in Bell's Louisa District is just upstream from the Iowa-Mississippi confluence. Much of the land on the refuge is floodplain that's not protected by levees, a mixture of bottomland forest and shallow sloughs that looks very much like Mud Bottoms did before the levee. With the levee gone Mud Bottoms would soon return to the same state. It could be a nesting ground for cormorants and great blue herons, a home for river otters, a spawning ground for river fish, a rest stop for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds.

"I told them I was very interested in the land," Bell recalls. "But I didn't have a pot of money sitting here." Fortunately Shawn Dettmann at the Soil Conservation Service office in Wapello did, thanks to a federal program called the Emergency Wetland Reserve. This program is part of the government's small shift in policy away from wetlands destruction and toward offering incentives for restoration. Under the program landowners can sell the federal government a perpetual easement on any wetland. The owner retains title to the land and is free to use it for hunting or fishing or, with certain restrictions, logging or grazing. The price paid for the easement is 60 percent of the market value of the land, which in Mud Bottoms made an easement worth $683 an acre.

A few of the landowners were interested in selling easements, but more were hoping to sell their land outright. They could have sold it to the Fish and Wildlife Service, but they didn't want to wait the 18 months to two years it would take the service to go through its normal land-acquisition procedures. So Bell went looking for help. He got it from the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, a private group similar to the Nature Conservancy. People from the foundation began discussions with all 26 owners of the 13 separate parcels of land in the Bottoms. The foundation's plan was to combine its funds with the $683 an acre from the Soil Conservation Service to get enough money for an outright purchase. The foundation would ultimately be reimbursed by Fish and Wildlife.

"We were told right up front this was not a forced buy out," Parsons says. "That quieted a lot of the landowners down. They didn't want the Department of Agriculture or the Fish and Wildlife Service coming in and telling them they had to sell."

Arranging the buy out quickly required extensive cooperation between several government agencies, but the Clinton administration was eager to have this pioneering effort be a success. Early this spring Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy visited Mud Bottoms. "He seemed pretty well versed," Parsons says. "He said this was the first in the nation. And then the word came back that 15 or 20 more [levee districts] could go the same way if this works out."

Those 15 or 20 others may or may not follow, but on March 17 the members of Levee District Eight met in the county courthouse and formally voted their district out of existence. The current timetable calls for the signing of papers and disbursement of checks later this month. A couple of the landowners are taking only the easement rather than the buy out; they're city people who use the land only for hunting and fishing and want to continue that. Another owner held on to part of his land to provide a buffer between his house, which is on the bluffs above the bottom, and the hunters who might use Mud Bottoms if the decision is made to open it to public hunting. Everybody else is taking the cash to retire on or to buy land elsewhere.

The buy out at Mud Bottoms was relatively easy because no one lived on the affected land. The houses of the farmers who owned the fields are all high and dry on the bluffs. Some people found it hard to walk away from land that had been in their families for many years, but all eventually agreed to the plan.

What the taxpayers get out of the deal is some additional recreational land that's good for hunting, fishing, and birding. We also get a 3,000-acre reservoir capable of holding a large amount of water in flood times. And once the purchase price is paid we will get that additional flood control absolutely free in perpetuity. Natural floodplains never need maintenance.

Tom Bell hopes Levee District Eight will be the first of many. "Economically it makes sense to invest high dollar amounts and technology into providing a flood wall round downtown Saint Louis. I don't know if it makes sense to spend that kind of money where there are no homes. In some cases the crops are valuable enough, but in other cases it's iffy. For flood control we should look for a balance."

Jack Parsons says some people in the community objected to the buy out. "I had one lady call me and tell me that it was terrible to take that amount of farmland out of production. 'The world's going to need that food.' My answer to her was that we're not hauling this away. We're leaving it right where it's at. And if we get hungry that levee can be put back in and that land can be farmed. It can be and it probably would be."

For more information on the Wapello area, see the Visitors' Guide in this issue.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Armando Villa.

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