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Are changing land use choices a factor in flood damage?
CROP flood damage
THIS BRIDGE OVER TAINTER CREEK along County Highway B in Crawford County was one of the many damaged in recent flooding in the area on September 22 in the aftermath of torrential rains that dumped 7-11 inches of rain. Some wonder if the severity and increasing frequency of flooding in the area has not been impacted by changes in land use choices and agricultural practices in the area.

Was there more to the recent flooding in Vernon and Crawford counties than heavy rainfall on an already saturated soil? Obviously, both were part of the mix that brought a train derailment, two deaths and some catastrophic property damage to the area during the morning of Thursday, Sept. 22.

However, there are more than a few people who believe changing land use practices may have significantly contributed to the problems. Among those with concerns are Crawford County Ag Agent Vance Haugen and Crawford County Conservationist Dave Troester. Both men pointed to specific land use practices that may have made the flooding worse.

Haugen and Troester were both impressed by the power of the flash flooding along Rush Creek and Tainter Creek in the northern part of the county.

“The damage we saw was really, really rugged,” Haugen said of the areas adjacent to those two creeks. “It looked like a moonscape.”

Haugen acknowledged the area was seeing bigger flooding events, but questioned the response.

“Are we just treating the symptoms or are we getting to the root of the cause?” Haugen asked. “I think we’re mostly just treating the symptoms.”

The ag agent said while it’s not right to lay all the blame for the damage on land use choices, it’s absolutely true that row crops take (up) a lot less moisture than hayfields or pastures.

“Row crops are annual and there’s just a lot less root development and a lot less water holding capacity,” Haugen noted. “No till planting compared to conventional is better, but having hay in the rotation is important. We need to go back to it.”

The county ag agent acknowledged his frustration that the contour strips introduced in the 20s and 30s to stop soil erosion and runoff are not being used as much now.

Haugen explained that now farms are seen as only a dairy farm or only as a crop farm. The mixed use of the smaller operations with dairy and crops and hay and pastures isn’t the norm any more.

“The changing face of agriculture is having a large impact,” Haugen said.

Haugen also said that the change of land use to recreational and the land left in trees is also having an effect. The ag agent pointed out before Europeans arrived on the local scene in the 1800s the area was covered with grass savannahs. This held water and stopped erosion.

“Trees don’t hold water,” Haugen said. “They don’t have the fine root system to hold the soil.”

Haugen compared an alfalfa field to a pine planation in their ability to hold soil and limit runoff. While the alfalfa is obviously holding back more, the county doesn’t have the amount of alfalfa growing that it once had.

The ag agent believes parts of the county are seeing too much recreational use on a countryside that is ‘not designed for forests.’

County conservationist Dave Troester echoed many of the points made by the county ag agent. He readily acknowledged the storms lately have produced catastrophic results.

“We need to do the outreach we can,” Troester explained. “It starts at the top, up on the ridges, where there needs to be reduced water flowing off the farms.”

Troester favors three conservation measures for area farms. First he’d like to see a return to more farming on contours, more alfalfa strips in the rotations and the growth of more grasses on the farms.

“Farms need to do different programs to lessen the effect of erosion and run-off,” Troester said. “There are so many initiatives to improve soil health. We need to build organic matter in the soil.”

Cover crops target the cash grain operation. There are a variety of cover crops than can be used with various crops. Cover crops can be planted after corn is chopped for silage or even into standing soybeans.

NRCS has a variety of cover crop mixtures available and one of half rye and half oats will over winter.

Steam bank restoration and rip wrapping can also be important in mitigating the effects of flooding.

“It makes a big difference,” Troester said. “We learned as society from mistakes that were made. Unfortunately, it seems landowners were more cognizant of these things decades ago than they are now.”

The county conservationist listed a variety of initiatives and programs designed to limit erosion and runoff on area farms. For instance, there is a buffer initiative designed to keep plantings back from stream banks and a pollinator initiative designed to stop plantings in areas used for pollinators to breed and thrive.

There’s a Mississippi River Basin Initiative aimed at keeping runoff out of the river and improving water quality.

Troester is concerned about runoff from large fields of all corn or all soybeans and prefer growers left the grass waterways intact.

However, the county conservationist realizes farmers face “a double–edged sword” as they face land use decisions. When commodity prices go up, they need the space in the field taken up by waterways and terraces to grow more crops so they can make more money. When prices drop, they need to grow more crops to make up for the lost income.

John Baird, the Director of the USDA-Farm Service Agency’s  Crawford County office,  shared some of the same views as Haugen and Troester on the importance of keeping land conservation practices in place.

Over the past 10 years, Baird has seen a drastic reduction in the number of landowners and acres in Conservation Reserve Program. CRP pays landowners to remove acres from production and allow grasses and other vegetation to grow there.

CRP land provides lots of runoff and erosion protection. Unfortunately, because of higher commodity prices, the county only has about half of the CRP acres it had just 10 years ago, according to Baird.

A look at how some historical figures bear out what the local ag officials are saying.

From the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, we can track the evolution of acres in the county planted to corn (grain and silage), soybeans, and hay across a span of years.

In 1995, county farmers planted 29,500 acres of corn, 2,200 acres of soybeans, and 45,600 acres of hay.

In 2005, they planted 31,200 acres of corn, 12,800 acres of soybeans, and 34,100 acres of hay.

In 2012 they planted 36,191 acres of corn, 15,002 acres of soybeans, and 29,629 acres of hay.