Private disasters unfolding
For some, the flash flood of 2013 will top 2007-08
Tuesday, July 23, 2013 6:56 AM
When the farmers of Houston County's Yucatan Valley awoke on June 23, a whole new landscape greeted their eyes. Overnight, a wall of water had descended the South Fork of the Root River, making the flash flood of 2007 look like a trickle.
Landowner Ben Lind stands in front of a vast area of sand deposits that cut down a large field of soybeans and corn.
Yucatan Township wasn't alone. But throughout Houston County, damages were hit and miss. Unfortunately for those who were hit, the scouring action of incredible amounts of water moved mountains of material.
Some dry washes and small streams took entirely new courses across their valleys. Driveways disappeared, as did field lanes and whole sections of fence line. Sand dunes and rock piles were deposited in productive fields. Woody debris clogged ponds, fences and row crops.
Some neighbors dodged a bullet, losing just a few feet of fence here and there. There was just no telling where the heavy hand of Mother Nature fell. The National Weather Service reported, "Parts of the area saw 48-hour rainfall amounts that have a statistical frequency of about once every 500 years."
"It just seems like it's sporadic all over," Ron Meiners of the Root River Soil and Water Conservation District (RRSWCD) said.
"Some parts of the county didn't get it quite as bad. I've been out and about, and some landowners are saying it's worse than ever, others are saying it's not too bad."
Last week, Ben Lind of Sheldon Township surveyed a wide field filled with fresh sand dunes up to three feet deep, a half-dozen newly formed scour holes up to 12 feet deep, and clumps of huge trees that seemed to have been pulled up by the roots and dropped from the sky.
"The water came along here anywhere from three to five feet deep," he said, "It probably took out 90 percent of the corn."
The loss of a crop is the least of Lind's worries. Filling in the deep holes where fertile soil once stood and removing one to three feet of sand from wide swaths is liable to be a laborious, expensive process.
"The old-timers tell me that you have to go back to 1946 to see a flood to compare," he said. "That's how long it's been since we've had something that's even close to being as devastating as this. The flood of 2007 was mild compared to what we got.
"It just seemed like it's never taken out so many of the river banks. It went so much higher because it came through at such volume... And it came quickly."
The spot he spoke from was a large field by Houston County standards, measuring about 150 acres. There are three separate landowners.
The South Fork shot under the Minnesota Trunk Highway 76 bridge like a fire hose, then spread out and deposited sand over the majority of the corn and bean-planted acres beyond.
Meiners said that the area east of Mabel down through Riceford Creek was also hit hard, as well as the aforementioned Yucatan Valley, Winnebago Valley, parts of the Crooked Creek drainage, and plenty of other, more or less isolated spots.
The Bear Creek watershed is one of those which exhibits fields of cobblestones out among the corn and beans. They weren't there prior to the 23rd.
"It kind of fell into the smaller drainage areas this time, and the way it came was very unique," Meiners noted.
Heavy thunderstorms appear to have deposited water in the upper reaches of some drainages, then dumped more rain right on top of the flush of debris as it worked its way down.
Meiners said he's been asking for help from state and federal lawmakers for losses to agriculture. Unfortunately for the hardest-hit farmers, so far most of the response has been aimed solely at public infrastructure such as roadways.
"We've been working feverishly, trying to get assistance wherever we can, but we're meeting resistance. They don't seem to hear that squeaky wheel."
Fewer farmers are seeking assistance than in 2007 and 2008, Meiners noted. "Back then, I'll bet we had 75-100 landowners come in with ponds full of rocks and debris, that sort of thing. This time there's only been a handful.
"There's got to be places where they need help, but they don't seem to be coming for it. I think more and more they just feel they're wasting time with the government. The wheels move so slowly, they might as well just take care of it themselves.
"It's unfortunate the way things are going, but we try to assist anybody that comes through the door. We don't have a pool of money to work with so all we can do is kind of send them here or send them there to ask for assistance.
"We are taking down a list, and we're documenting the damage. Should funds become available, either through a federal disaster declaration or special (state) legislation, they may be able to pay after-the-fact.
"Or landowners can declare damages through the Farm Service Agency (FSA). But the phone isn't ringing here (about help for individuals), so to me it's a little discouraging.
"People aren't informed as to where to go, who to ask and what to expect. What I would like to see is a way to make it simple in black and white when a disaster like this strikes.
"There should be some kind of direction for these landowners. If I've got a fence that gets wiped out, who do I go see? Who do I talk to if my driveway is gone? We need something for landowners to follow instead of them running to every agency and trying to sort all this out by themselves.
"We lost so much soil on a lot of these farms this year that I've heard of some landowners in Winnebago Valley that are actually just going to give up on it. What was fertile crop ground at one time, now is gone.
"When I look at those fields full of stone, I wonder what it will cost to reclaim it. I really don't know how much it will be. You cannot just farm through or around that stuff.
"Houston County is going to be flood-prone. This won't be the last one, so you have to prepare as much as possible. Farming practices are going to remain an important aspect of that."