Miller City, Ill., farmers work on rebuilding own levee

Sunday, June 3, 2012
Darold Dee Billings drives Friday along one of the sections of the Miller City, Ill., levee that he and about a dozen other farmers made emergency repairs to after the levee failed during May 2011 flooding. (ADAM VOGLER)

MILLER CITY, Ill. -- These farmers say they didn't have a choice.

They couldn't wait for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to repair the Miller City levee after last spring's record-setting flood.

They had crops to get planted and those crops needed protection.

"We all got together at our own expense and built this levee back," said David Willis, president of the Len Small Levee District in Alexander County, Ill. "We didn't look for nothing back."

These farmers don't understand the complaints of those in Mississippi County, Mo., where the corps intentionally breached the Birds Point levee to relieve flooding pressures up stream. In their opinion, the corps has worked quickly to construct emergency repairs at Birds Point.

"Every time you turn on the TV set or you read the paper, it's always somebody from over at Birds Point area wanting money for this or wanting money for that," said Willis, noting that the corps had long ago purchased flood easements from those farmers.

Willis and other Miller City farmers say they had just as much damage as Birds Point when their levee failed.

Willis himself had more than 1,000 flood-damaged acres he couldn't plant at all last year. There is a new lake the force of the water scooped out at one site where the levee broke. There are formerly fertile fields now either piled with sand or scoured out. Irrigation pivots still sit in empty fields a year after they were turned upside down by floodwaters.

Miller City farmers believe all this could have been avoided if the corps had activated its plan to blow the Birds Point levee sooner.

"If they would have blew that levee when they were supposed to, all my neighbors and all of Olive Branch would have still been there," said Miller City farmer Darold Dee Billings. "When they did blow it, you could just watch the water go down."

But they're not a group that wastes time feeling sorry for themselves, so they quickly worked with the corps in an effort to make emergency repairs to their specifications.

"They drew it out and we just put it there," said Billings, who has helped repair the Miller City levee after floods since 1969.

About a dozen farmers, using their own equipment and materials, with fuel provided by the levee district, worked hundreds of hours last fall and this spring to mound up dirt to protect their farms and homes from the threat of the Mississippi's high waters.

"This time last year, we had high water and we figured if we could get enough dirt up, it would maybe protect our crops so we could have a crop. If we hadn't have done it we wouldn't have been able to plant a crop," said Billings, who lost soybeans he'd already planted and was unable to plant many more acres because they were underwater.

Day after day and scoop after scoop the farmers worked to restore their levee. Willis said he put 400 hours on a new tractor and Billings estimates he put a couple hundred hours on his equipment working on the levee.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Statistics Service, Alexander County farmers harvested 4,500 fewer acres of corn in 2011 than the previous year, cutting production from 1.57 million bushels to about 710,000 bushels. The county's 2011 soybean harvest was also down by 6,500 acres from 2010. Last year, Alexander County farmers harvested 865,000 bushels, which the previous year they'd harvested 1.2 million bushels.

There are still many acres near the levee where the land needs to be restored before crops can be grown there.

Farmers stopped working on their levee repairs in March and turned their attention toward planting this year's crops.

The corps is expected to finish the work these farmers started later this summer.

Plans and specifications for levee repairs are currently in the corps technical review process, said Mike Petersen, public affairs chief for the St. Louis District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Petersen expects a construction contract to be awarded in early July.

The corps will repair multiple levee failures, including replacing gravity drains and constructing 2,200 to 2,400 feet of ring levee to create a semi circle around the area where the levee breach occurred.

"The reason for constructing around it instead of straight across is that when we have a levee breach there's generally a lot of scour. It scoops out a whole bunch of earth and if we want to have a more stable foundation for the reconstructed levee, it's better to work around where it got scoured out," Petersen said.

This method also reduces the amount of materials needed to reconstruct the levee, he said.

Petersen didn't have a cost estimate for the repairs, but said the funding will come from a supplemental flood appropriation approved by Congress in December.

"We will make sure any kind of repairs that are done will restore that levee to its functionality before the flood," Petersen said.

With floods in 2011 on both the Missouri and the Mississippi rivers, Petersen said it was important to have the cooperation of levee districts like Len Small in making emergency levee repairs.

"A lot of folks knowing we were dealing with two major floods in the same year worked with us to help us get things lined up and address these repairs. It's rewarding to see that happening now," he said.

mmiller@semissourian.com

388-3646

Pertinent address:

Miller City Road, Miller City, Ill.

Map of pertinent addresses

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