MORGANZA — Marty Graham knows that farming land near the Morganza Spillway comes with the risk of seasonal flooding between March and late June, which is why his annual crop of soybeans isn’t planted until May.
“That way, if we get flooded earlier in the year, we wouldn’t have that much invested,” he says.
But this year, Graham and several other Pointe Coupee landowners and farmers will lose as much as $4 million in unharvested crops because of unseasonably late flooding of the Mississippi River that already has begun to submerge more than 4,000 acres of farmland near the Morganza forebay.
“We should have been allowed to do what we needed to do to protect our crops,” Graham said Wednesday morning as he scanned endless rows of soybean crops two months shy of being harvested. “It’s like we’re trying to fight a bear with a switch.”
In the past, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has allowed farmers to take proactive steps toward protecting their crops during minor floods that didn’t require the spillway be opened.
In 2008, the Corps even aided Graham in stacking sandbags atop a small levee called the Potato Ridge — a 2.2-mile barrier between the river and the forebay designed to be overtopped — to save his crops from rising waters.
But this year, Graham was prohibited from taking those preventive measures.
The Corps even rejected a request from state lawmakers urging floodwaters be diverted. Corps officials said doing so could potentially flood residential communities along the Atchafalaya Basin.
“We learned a lot of lessons since the 2011 flood,” Ricky Boyett, spokesman for the Corps of Engineers, said Wednesday. “Over time, the river has changed in that area. Some water levels are higher now than when the system was built.”
The Morganza Spillway, part of the Corps’ flood-control system, is designed to divert water from the Mississippi River to the Atchafalaya Basin during major floods.
Built in the late 1950s, the spillway’s control structure has been opened only twice — in 1973 and 2011.
The land Graham farms, which is owned by Jacques Lacour, is nestled between the spillway’s control gates and the Mississippi River.
The bowl-shaped area is fertile land for farming because of nutrients the soil absorbs from the river water.
“For a little, small community, not only farmers are losing revenue; the parish is, too,” Graham said.
Officials estimate the loss of crops near the spillway somewhere around $12 million for the parish.
Boyett said the Corps no longer encourages stacking sandbags or any other barriers atop the Potato Ridge levee because they could become impediments should the need to operate the spillway rise unexpectedly.
Congressman Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, in a July 7 letter begged the Corps to modify its operating protocols at its Old River Control Structure by allowing more water flow from the Mississippi River into the Atchafalaya Basin.
In his response, however, Maj. Gen. Michael Wehr, commander of the Corps’ Mississippi Valley Division, said that could cause flooding elsewhere along the Basin.
“All the water you’re looking at now is 40 percent of the nation’s river flow draining through the area,” Boyett said Wednesday. “We operate the Mississippi River tributary as a system, and all of this is based on water-level triggers.”
Gina Tilos-Nash, a senior hydrologist for the National Weather Service’s Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center, said the minor flooding that is drowning Pointe Coupee crops is unusual for this time of year.
She says the flooding is a trickle-down effect of the flooding and heavy rainfall that recently soaked parts of Ohio, upper Mississippi and Texas.
“It’s nothing critical, but currently the water level at the nearest gauge in Red River Landing sits at 55.2 feet,” Tilos-Nash said Wednesday. The flood stage — the point at which a river would normally overflow its banks if it didn’t have levees — is 48 feet. “We’re calling for it to crest around 55½ feet on Sunday or Monday.”
Boyett said the Corps allows water to spill into the Morganza forebay when water levels hit the 54-foot mark at Red River Landing.
Graham expects his entire soybean crop to be underwater by the weekend.
“Basically, we’ll just have a big lake,” he said.
Crop insurance will help recoup the more than $500,000 it took to plant and tend to this year’s crop, but it won’t cover most of the overhead costs he incurred.
Lacour, who owns most of the farmland in the forebay, said the adverse effects from this year’s flooding will roll into next season, as well.
“The Corps typically takes six to eight months to drain this area,” Lacour said. “We won’t be able to put out crops next year.”
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