Iowa State Professor Questions Rebuilding Some Infrastructure in Flood Plains03/29/2019
For many Americans, the headlines of the devastating Midwestern March floods may be fading. But for Corn Belt farmers who have farms, land, stored grain, and livestock still under water, the fog has not lifted.
Dr. Charles Hurburgh, Iowa State University professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering and professor in charge, Iowa Grain Quality Initiative, says the damage from the March floods to crops, livestock, communities, etc., will continue to be tabulated for months and years.
However, folks may want to hold their powder on damage estimates, as the stars align for further inclement weather.
Wall of Water
While we don’t know just how much grain has been damaged or destroyed due to tragic flooding, the possibility of further spring flooding is daunting. “We’re not done. There is what amounts to a wall of water that will cross the state of Missouri, by way of the Missouri River, and meet a rapidly rising Mississippi River,” Dr. Hurburgh says.
The snow in Wisconsin and Minnesota is melting this week, and flooding is expected in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. That’s all going to end up in the Mississippi River, at a point, he says.
The National Weather Service reports indicated 66°F. in the Twin Cities on Wednesday. The Mississippi River, in St. Paul, Minnesota, is forecast to reach 19.7 feet possibly on its way to 20 feet by Friday. (Major flood stage is 17 feet.)
Grain elevators in New Orleans have been testing pumping stations for weeks, expecting record or near-record amounts of water coming down the Mississippi River, in the next two to three weeks, Dr. Hurburgh says.
“These are the same pumps that couldn’t keep up with Hurricane Katrina. There is just nowhere for the water to go,” Dr. Hurburgh says. Keep in mind, there is a lot of grain along the Mississippi River in commercial storage.”
Life After Receding Water
Even postflooding, the farmers will have their hands full regarding the handling of grain and maintaining its quality.
One issue is destruction of the adulterated grain, according to the Department of Natural Resources requirement. Another is the process of siphoning the good grain off the top of a flooded grain bin.
“There will be more problems with on-farm bins vs. commercial bins, due to the steel on farm bins is not as steady,” Dr. Hurburgh says.
He adds, “Farmers are being told to disinfect their flood-damaged bins. There is a sewer in Omaha, Nebraska, that is just dumping raw sewage into the river. We know there are all kinds of health problems.”
Grain bins should be evaluated by a professional constructional engineer, he says.
“If a bin gets out of being exactly round, the sweep auger and stirator have real trouble operating correctly,” Dr. Hurburgh says. Those two pieces of equipment will not work in an elongated bin.”
Reshaping the bin would get too expensive.
On Friday, the USDA will update its estimates of on-farm and commercial U.S. corn and soybean storage in its Quarterly Grain Stocks Report.
With commercial and on-farm storage at high levels, before the flooding occurred, some Midwest regional locations could begin to face a storage shortage, Dr. Hurburgh says.
“We have been creeping, over the last five years, the amounts of stored corn on September 1. That amount has been creeping up. So any loss of storage, like the flooding, will compound storage capacity.”
The impact will be local, meaning about 40 to 50 miles around a farmer impacted by the flood, he says. Beyond that distance, the trucking costs begin to eat into the farmer’s profits.
Ethanol plants, positioned along the Missouri River Basin and Platte River in Nebraska, have been impacted by the loss of their corn sources.
“There’s a reason those ethanol plants were built in those floodplains – it’s cheap corn to source,” Dr. Hurburgh says. But, remember, demand for ethanol has been at multiple-year lows. So, the impact to the industry might not be felt as much.”
This historical flooding event is opening a lot of eyes regarding climate variability.
“It’s a graphic demonstration of the need for contingency planning,” Dr. Hurburgh says.
In the future, it would be helpful to look at predictive capabilities and updated probabilities before we rebuild everything where it was, he says.
“We could have had a worst-case scenario in how much water would result from all of the things mentioned above. But we never thought about it. All winter, people kept talking about how bad of a winter it’s been and how much snow was being received. However, more predictive attention to climate will arrive from this year’s event.”
Also, the transportation infrastructure will study its capacity, he says.
For example, is the best place for the busiest railroad track in the country along the Platte River? “Is that the best place for it?” he asks.
“I think there will be some planning and infrastructure that come out of this flooding event,” Dr. Hurburgh says. “It’s not just about planting of corn, row spacing, and the agronomics of farming. We lost a lot of bridges that some say weren’t built strong enough or high enough.”
Rebuild in a Floodplain?
Should we really be rebuilding those structures on those flooded locations?
“We can farm the land. The land is not going anywhere. It might take a while to be cleaned up, but it can be farmed,” Dr. Hurburgh says.
He added, “It would occur to me that whoever is farming it ought to have a marketing plan that would not require keeping the grain on that physical site.”
It could be that farmers have a marketing plan that uses contract sales, have storage facilities elsewhere, or a plan that uses futures and options contracts allowing the farmer to sell the cash crop immediately.
The question now becomes, with all of the impacted areas located in a floodplain, do you rebuild in those same areas?
“We were using the mathematical odds of water levels, based on the last 100 years or so of history. The odds were saying that, well, that’s a 500-year event. As it turns out, you have to ask maybe yes, and maybe no,” Dr. Hurburgh says.