Morganza Spillway farmers who’ve been left in limbo for the last month are moving back onto their fields and farms despite the risk the floodgates might still be opened, purposely flooding their property to relieve pressure on the flood-swollen Mississippi River.
“I’m not backing off on any what-ifs. I’ll roll the dice,” Pointe Coupee Parish corn and soybean farmer Ted Glaser said.
His roughly 1,000 acres sits five miles as the crow flies south of the gates of the spillway control structure that lies between Morganza and Batchelor in Pointe Coupee Parish.
When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers first announced in late May it would open the Morganza Spillway due to high Mississippi River levels, he spent 10 days pumping and moving equipment from his newly-planted soybeans.
The Morganza Spillway's opening has been postponed for the third time this month, this time indefinitely.
But last week, the Corps announced that the river was not reaching the targets needed to trigger the spillway opening as quickly as anticipated, so it postponed opening indefinitely.
There is still a chance the spillway opens and floods the farmers’ crops several feet for at least a few weeks, but there’s also a chance the spillway doesn’t open and that’s what they’re banking on.
Farmers like Glaser, who has lost at least 10% of his soybean crop from heavy rains, are assessing the damage caused by the delay. Glaser intends to replant lost soybeans with the hope they can go to market with the rest in early fall.
“Crops are growing, they’re not going to stop or pause to wait for you so you’ve got to keep managing them,” farmer Jacques LaCour said. LaCour farms soybeans in the forebay — the property on the river-side of the spillway — so has already been flooded for months, but he also manages cattle directly on the other side, or in the afterbay.
He said he moved cattle to a different pasture while the flooding threat was ongoing and moved some of the cattle gates to aid wildlife hoping to escape flooding. Compared to farmers with growing crops in the afterbay, he’s got a lot less legwork while in limbo.
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He said he’s going to keep the cattle in the alternative field until given the all-clear, but many other farmers he knows are carrying on business-as-usual.
Army Corps spokesman Ricky Boyett said there’s no immediate threat of the spillway’s opening but water levels will remain high for the next 28 days, which is as far out as forecasts can predict.
He said authorities haven’t held a stakeholder meeting with farmers since the last postponement so there’s been no official all-clear to continue, but neither has there been a warning against resuming farming.
“It’s their property and we can’t tell them to or not to (farm), but we definitely would stress there is a risk, there’s still an unknown,” he said Thursday. “We’re still going to be in high water for a very long time so while it doesn’t look like it now, there could be a change.”
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Authorities had planned to operate the spillway on a ‘slow opening’ model, opening bays as needed over a period of several days to flood the water only a few feet per day. The idea was to give wildlife a chance to flee the area and slow the deluge of water rushing toward the Atchafalaya River.
That will still be the plan if the spillway opens this year, Boyett said, and the Corps hopes to provide farmers with at least a seven-day notice period to again prepare their land as best as possible.
The general consensus among the parish’s spillway farmers is that the Corps is working as it’s designed to work, but there needs to be longer-term changes to the triggers for opening the spillway, and maintenance.
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Farmer Carl Newton has also returned to work sugarcane close to the Atchafalaya River. He said he has faith in the levees holding, but he thinks more money needs to be allocated to authorities in order to accurately study the Mississippi River’s changes and make a long-term action plan for how and when to operate the spillways.
He personally thinks a small tax on northern states whose waters flood into Louisiana could offset mitigation costs and provide money for dredging the river north of Baton Rouge to clear silt buildup, which has the river reaching a higher level faster.
“In a perfect world, we should be like a beaver,” he said. “Every day he gets up and checks his dam and if there’s a tiny leak he repairs it and we don’t do that as much, we don’t think about it like that because there’s always factions saying ‘Let it go back to nature’ but that’s impossible.”
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Newton, a longtime Pointe Coupee Parish farmer, remembers stories of his grandfather losing everything in 1920s, before the spillway existed and when levees broke. Authorities have learned over time, he said, but it’s battling nature and there needs to be more resources funneled into making sure farmers like him aren’t bearing the brunt of a failing system.
“We can’t solve this thinking about Louisiana. We’ve got to think about the states and everyone that has an interest in the system working well,” he said. “It’s almost at a time to say it’s become unmanageable.”