Watching backwater rise called ‘a slow death’|[05/04/08]

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 4, 2008

While the Mississippi River has been falling steadily — more quickly than expected — water is still rising on some farmland north of Vicksburg.

The Yazoo backwater area, inside levees that are protecting it from even worse flooding, is taking on more water day after day. It will until drainage gates can be opened, perhaps as soon as one day this week.

The indefinite situation leaves farmers facing difficult decisions — whether to apply fertilizers, whether to apply herbicides — or whether they should plant a crop at all this year.

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The Vicksburg Division U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that 337,000 acres of land are flooded in the backwater area, and 117,000 of those are land cleared for farming.

“It’s a slow death,” said Jesse Willis, a Valley Park area farmer. “Sometimes I wish I had land outside of the backwater area. At least then you can watch the river forecasts and know what’s coming. Here, it all depends on the rain and when they can open the gates. You never know what to do.”

Willis leases about 1,400 acres of farmland, about half of which is under water. He’s planted about 500 acres of corn on what he thought was his highest ground. But the 100 acres of sprouting stalks have gone under. He’s been putting off applying expensive fertilizers and herbicides to his corn, for fear the water could rise and wash them away.

“A corn farmer can easily spend $100 to $150 an acre on fertilizer alone,” said Warren County Extension Service Director John Coccaro. “Herbicides vary a little more in price, but are generally not as expensive. Generally, you want to apply those just after the crop comes up. I would say most farmers have done so by now.”

In trying to determine what to do with his unplanted cropland once the water recedes, Willis has to be equal parts mathematician, fortune teller and gambler.

“My insurance covers prevented planting, but it will only pay about 60 percent, less the premium,” he explained, while surveying a washed-out, unplanted portion of his land Thursday. “If you take that money, you cannot replant when the water goes down. However, I’ve already booked (soy) beans at about $8 a bushel this year. I could lose a lot of money by not planting, but if I plant and get a poor crop, I’m out my booking and the costs of raising a crop. It’s frightening.”

If Willis cannot raise a crop of soybeans this year, he said he’ll have to come up with about $80,000 to make good on his booking. However, he won’t be able to plant until the water subsides and the land dries out, which he figures will be early June. Last year Willis had his best soybean crop ever, but he planted months earlier than he will be able to this year.

“The later you plant, the less money you make. It’s a gamble, but the older you get the less gamble you like to take,” said the 67-year-old.

In the 4,093 square miles that make up the backwater area, hundreds of farmers face the same tough choices as Willis. The area is flanked by levee structures, with the lone drainage point being the gates at the Steele Bayou Control Structure. The gates have been closed since March 13 to keep out the flooding Mississippi River, meaning the levees are serving as the walls against the higher Mississippi and Yazoo rivers, but any seepage or rain that falls over the area has nowhere to go but to level out over the forested land and fields.

On Saturday, the water stage on the riverside of the Steele Bayou Control was 96.1 feet. The stage on the landside was 91.7 feet, meaning roughly 4.4 feet of water was being held out of the backwater area.

Army Corps of Engineers Chief of Water Control Robert Simrall has said gates could open May 10, but the determining factor will be when the water level outside the gates is lower than the level inside. Weeks ago, the Corps predicted it might take until late May for the gates to be opened, but Simrall said the date has been pushed up in light of the river falling faster than anticipated.

Steele Bayou landsideannual peak stages(Highest to lowest)1979May 496.501983June 795.801997April 893.301991May 692.461984May 2992.001993May 1991.501994March 1790.901999Feb. 1590.261982Dec. 3190.202002April 1390.031980April 1590.002005Feb. 790.001989March 989.701990March 589.562001March 988.702003June 588.391998May 1088.301996June 2288.101995June 2687.902004Dec. 2087.611985Dec. 1787.101978May 2485.702007Jan. 2585.401988Jan. 785.301987March 1384.901992Dec. 3082.301986Dec. 1882.101981June 1580.402006March 2580.102000April 479.60″We’ve been mighty lucky, really,” Willis said before rains Friday and Saturday. “We’ve gotten about 7 fewer inches of rain this year than we normally have, and the river is falling quick. If we would have that extra 7 inches, we’d really be in trouble.”

With normal rainfall, the area is expected to reach 94 feet mean sea level. At that reading, the Corps estimates a total of 404,000 acres of backwater area land would be flooded, with 159,000 acres being cleared farmland.

Only twice since 1979 has the backwater area water stage risen above 94 feet, the last time being 1983.

With the historic flooding taking place, backwater area farmers have been keeping their insurance agents busy running the numbers and explaining all the intricacies of their policies.

“I’m swamped,” said Kirk Erickson, a crop insurance agent and owner of Planters Insurance Group in Yazoo City. “Many times the farmers don’t think about all the facets of their policies. There’s a lot of things to consider and a lot of things that can happen.”

Of the hundreds of farmers for whom Erickson writes policies in Warren, Issaquena, Yazoo and Sharkey counties, he said, about 60 percent buy coverage beyond what is known as catastrophic coverage, or a CAT policy.

For $100 per crop, per county, a CAT policy provides farmers bare minimum coverage — a 55 percent payment of the crops’ worth if more than half of the total crop is destroyed by a natural disaster.

“The CAT policies are very affordable, and nearly everyone has it. The other policies available vary according to where your land is and what your yield is. A good rule of thumb is it costs about $20 an acre maximum for corn and about $15 an acre for soybeans,” said Erickson.

County Farm Service Agencies — subsidiaries of the U.S. Department of Agriculture — have begun to assess total crop damage from flooding, and will compile a report to be sent to Capitol Hill as a request for federal relief for farmers. Rob Riggin, the Warren County FSA executive director, said the assessment is in the preliminary stages, and will not be completed until all the water has subsided.

For farmers to qualify for any federal assistance, they must carry some kind of crop insurance, said Riggin, at the very least a CAT policy. Riggin said many people have little sympathy for farmers, assuming between insurance and federal assistance they don’t suffer losses during a flood year. He said it’s simply not true.

“In the public there is a misconception that farmers are making money when disasters happen. That’s absolutely false,” said Riggin. “When it’s all said and done they lose money. If they’re real lucky, they might break even, but imagine working an entire year with no profit at all.”