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Floods strip Midwest of tons of valuable topsoil

Monday, July 28, 2008

MARTINSVILLE, Ind. -- Jim Lankford's corn crops used to stretch to the White River. Now the river has stretched itself through his crops.

The river eroded a new route for itself during June's flooding, a channel with steep 12-foot banks at the edge of some of Lankford's corn fields about 30 miles southwest of Indianapolis. The flood spread rocks in other spots, making it look as if Lankford planted soybeans in a gravel road. Elsewhere, silt is piled up like sand dunes and uprooted trees still litter cornfields more than a month after the floods.

"It's the worst I've ever seen in my life for this area," the 62-year-old farmer said.

The flooding that swamped large areas of the Midwest took with it some of the region's most valuable resource: soil.

Now farmers and environmentalists are at odds over what to do with erosion-prone land -- take their chances planting crops on marginal land in hopes of good yields and high grain prices, or plant trees, native grasses or ground cover that act as a natural flood buffer.

The floods may have caused up to $3 billion in crop losses in Iowa and $800 million in crop damage in Indiana, according to estimates from agriculture secretaries in those states.

Erosion damage is harder to tally.

In Wisconsin, flooding damaged about $2.8 million worth of conservation structures, such as dams, levees, ditches and waterways, said Don Baloun, a farm conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resource Conservation Service in Madison, Wis.

Some land in Illinois is still submerged.

"It could be fall for some of our counties on the Mississippi River before we see what kind of damage farmers did experience as far as erosion," said Donald King of Illinois' USDA's Farm Service Agency.

Erosion robs farmers of the nutrient-rich topsoil their growing plants need.

"It takes thousands of years to form one inch of topsoil," said Jane Hardisty, Indiana's state conservationist. "Within a day, we lost it. It's just devastating."

It's also an issue downstream, where sediment diminishes water quality. Scientists think the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico -- oxygen-depleted water off the Texas-Louisiana coast that can't support marine life -- is likely to be worse this year partly because of the flood runoff.

States have set up programs to keep their soil. Missouri, for example, has nearly halved its rate of soil loss since the mid-1980s, when it dedicated a special tax that generates $42 million a year for soil-conserving practices such as terraces, retention ponds and grazing rotations.

The conversion of row-crop land to pastures over the last 20 years in northern Missouri also has helped conserve the precious few inches of top soil left in that part of the state, said Bill Foster, who heads the state's soil and water conservation program.

"If we lose very many more inches of soil, we won't be farming," Foster said. "It's critical to keep in place."

The Farm Service Agency's Conservation Reserve Program also helps. The $2 billion-a-year federal program pays farmers not to plant crops, instead returning land to its native state. That saves an estimated 450 million tons of soil each year.

However, that program isn't without controversy. Environmental groups recently sought a federal court injunction to stop hay production and cattle grazing on some conservation land. A judge in Seattle ruled that the USDA did not conduct an appropriate environmental review, but said a reversal would be unfair to farmers and ranchers counting on using that land.

Conservation program officials announced earlier this month that farmers in flooded-damaged areas of 16 states could graze livestock on conservation land to help them cope with rising grain prices and flood damage.

"Our CRP land is vital to the balance we promote at USDA between production and preservation," Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said. "I commit this resource knowing that we must redouble our conservation effort at every future opportunity."

One of the program's founders, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., wants to also allow farmers to plant crops on more stable conservation land.

Environmental groups say there are risks to opening up conservation program land to planting. Marginal land planted with ground cover or trees acts as a natural flood barrier, said Sara Hopper, director of agricultural policy for the Environmental Defense Fund. Planting crops could mean less protection against floods, she said.

"It's going to make a bad situation worse, particularly over the long run," she said.

Lankford, the Indiana farmer, faces a difficult decision for his flood-damaged land.

He could replant corn in an effort to make money off the field, but that would take cash to rebuild a breached levee and haul hundreds of truck loads of topsoil to replace his lost land. He could also consider the conservation reserve program, or he could simply abandon the affected field.

Another big flood could come again next year, he said, or not for another hundred years.

"Traditionally, farmers are optimists, and I know I'm that way. They always think 'Well, next year will be better,"' Lankford said.

"You know there's risks. Sometimes it's worse than you think."


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