This late winter of 2019 the Mid-South is experiencing extensive flooding. In some areas it has been a couple of decades since water was this high. In other areas, the more recent 2011 flooding is plainly recalled plainly by residents and farmers. Many of you know I’m a weather watcher. OK, weather geek. So I might listen to NOAA weather radio a little more than the average person. There is a litany of flood reports, watches, and warnings these days. Occasionally you will hear the phrase “unprotected farm land is flooded.”
It occurs to me that we only associate negative things with flooding, yet the existence of our agricultural economy has the recurring flooding of Ol' Man River and his tributaries to thank. The deep, alluvial soil that willingly hosts the crop a farmer seeds into it is a result of these cyclical floods. Don’t get me wrong - I keenly understand the impact on those whose homes, businesses and farms are impacted by floodwater, and on those who are unable to travel or work. But that same flooding is tied to the success of the region.
Since the Mid-South was “discovered by Europeans” there are two major natural forces that have shaped it: earthquakes and flooding. More on the 1811-12 earthquakes another time. The region has a love hate relationship with flooding and flood control. In the first third of the twentieth century, including 1912, 1913, and 1927 serious floods made it obvious that a growing population could not permanently settle this region without somehow managing flood waters.
|A scene from Marked Tree, Arkansas in 1912/13, looking southeast.
The former Frisco RR line is just to the right of the photo. From the collection of my
grandmother, Nola Ashby Fleming
Thus, in the 1930s, the Corps of Engineers began to build levees, locks, dams, and other flood control structures designed to manage flood waters and protect homes, businesses, and farms from the worst of the flooding. Note: In this blog in January I posted a review of two excellent books on the subject of the Mississippi River and flood control, which I commend to you now as excellent resources.
Gradually, most of the flooding was brought under control, but occasionally (such as 1973 and 2011) things still get out of hand. Flood control structures are often a two edged sword: pumping stations designed to prevent backwater flooding on tributaries also limit the ability of fish to travel up and down those streams. As a result, many larger fish no longer inhabit the smaller tributaries. In the time of logging in the region, late 1800s, rafts of logs and the occasional steamboat plied the White River and the St Francis River. While few tributaries are navigable anymore there are still reminders of those days in the form of high-peaked bridges or lock and dam combinations. More exotic structures, such as the siphons near Marked Tree, Arkansas remain in place to assist in controlling flooding, as they alter the waters of the St Francis and the streams that contribute to its flow.
The next time you see flooded farm land remember that the river giveth, and the river taketh away.