Flooded farmers face growing dilemma in warming world

Source: By Tammy Webber and Josh Funk, Associated Press • Posted: Sunday, December 15, 2019

Frogs, carp and bugs thrived all summer in murky floodwaters where Gene Walter should have planted corn and soybeans. Last year’s ruined crop spilled from metal storage bins that burst nine months ago when the Missouri River surged through two levees near his southwest Iowa farm.

Like many in the water-weary Midwest, Walter doesn’t know whether climate change was responsible for the second major flood in nine years. Or the increasingly frequent torrential rains that dump more water in an hour than he used to see in days.

Even so, “we kind of feel like it’s the new normal,” said Walter, who lost 46,000 bushels of corn and soybeans. “You can’t rely on anything. You can’t build anything. You can’t do future planning. … The uncertainty is the thing that is really bad.”

This year’s devastating losses are forcing tough decisions about the future of farming in America’s floodplains, even among those skeptical of climate change and humans’ role in it.

Farmers who lost billions of dollars in grain, livestock, equipment, structures and unplanted crops are wondering whether they should — or can — return to the fertile bottomlands next year.

The Army Corps of Engineers must determine how many damaged levees can be rebuilt but says it won’t be all of them. More than 50 levees were breached on the Missouri River alone, taking thousands of acres out of production.

And with the ground still soggy heading into winter, experts say the stage is set for more flooding next spring.

“A lot of this ground won’t be put back into production,” said Brett Adams, a Peru, Neb., farmer who saw 2,000 acres — 80% of his land — submerged in up to 12 feet of water. “I’ve seen it first — and up and down the river — land is so tore up from flooding that some of it is completely ruined.”

Adams lost over 100,000 bushels of corn and a half-million dollars in potential income after six storage bins burst. But he bristles when people ask why he farms in an area that could flood.

“Because it never flooded before,” Adams tells them, noting that a levee built in 1950 kept his farm dry during major floods in 1993 and 2011.

It’s very difficult to directly tie this year’s flooding — or any single weather event — to climate change. But the flooding comes as “we’re seeing big rain and even bigger snows that are consistent with what we will see in a warming world,” because a warmer atmosphere delivers more water to storm systems, said NOAA climate monitoring chief Deke Arndt.

The number of heavy rain events has increased throughout much of the United States, including the Midwest, where the days with at least 1 inch of rain averaged 13% higher from 2009 to 2018 than the long-term average dating to 1950, according to NOAA.

In Missouri, the number of annual 4-inch or greater rainfalls was 58% higher than the long-term average. In Iowa, the increase was 31%, and in Nebraska it was 23%.

There also will be more severe droughts, experts say, while rains will be more intense, with more water falling in a shorter period. What’s more, the greatest increase in rainfall is occurring in the fall, when farmers are trying to harvest.

The unpredictability “ends up being really bad news for farms,” said Jeffrey Dukes, an ecologist who directs the Purdue Climate Change Research Center at Purdue University.