Natural Resources Districts Active in Flooding Relief 03/25/2019
By Sunni Heikes-Knapton, NACD Northern Plains Region Representative
The nation has been watching closely as the striking images of flooding from the Midwest are broadcast to the world: farm houses and grain bins standing like lonely islands in a sea, landscapes where floodwaters stretch to the horizon and beyond, paved roads chopped into intermittent chunks, and cattle wandering in pastures scattered with ice slabs thicker than concrete.
Views like this are accurately conveying the disaster that is being faced by the 14 states expected to be impacted by recent flooding. In the midst of the tragedy, entities like Nebraska’s Natural Resources Districts are stepping into supporting roles for the people and land impacted.
Driven by the melting of significant snowpack and recent spring rains, streams and rivers in the region quickly exceeded normal flows.
“This is a historic event,” explained John Winkler, manager with the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District (NRD). “Every river in the system was breaking records. Flows were at levels far above flood stage; everything was overwhelmed at once.”
The numbers from the impacts are rising as well. Agriculture losses for Nebraska, identified as the hardest-hit state, are estimated at $1 billion for crops and livestock. Of the 93 counties in the state, 63 are declared to have emergency status.
The emergency status tool is fast-tracking work in the area, with agencies at the federal, state and local level all partnering to address community needs.
The Natural Resources District declared their own emergency, allowing for the staff of 50 to immediately shift their work to support flood efforts. “Everyone is wearing a new hat,” Winkler said. “Our staff will not walk away before the work is done.”
The NRD staff members typically in the field are now working on engineering and logistics for reconstruction, and the office staff is performing the necessary flood-related documentation. As local community members themselves, the staff is performing these tasks at the same time they are dealing with the challenges of their own homes and families being affected.
The district’s role has been valuable for many in the community, and the work that lies ahead is equally important. They have offered to help landowners navigate the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) paperwork required for emergency support and are partnering with the Lower Platte South Natural Resources District and two county health departments to offer no cost well testing for residents in four counties.
The long-term future of conservation work in the area is new territory, as it is believed that the hardest hit areas saw a complete loss of the soil resource. Common local soil conservation measures like no-till and contouring are thought to have reduced some of the damage in areas, but little will be known until the flooded areas are surveyed and the data analyzed. Winkler explained, “If those acres are able to come back into production, it may be at a much lower rate.”
Despite the immediate and long-term consequences, spirits in these rural communities remain steadfast. “Disasters bring communities together,” Winkler said. “There are long hours by everyone, but they all are committed to being involved with helping out.”
For those who want to contribute, “Any help is appreciated,” encourages Winkler. The American Red Cross and the Salvation Army are national organizations currently working on the ground. The Nebraska Farm Bureau has also established a disaster relief fund and launched the Agriculture Disaster Exchange portal to connect farmers, ranchers and agricultural communities with support.
The flows that are yet to come are unknown, but the floodstage is expected to continue for some time. “People are leery and are watching the sky,” admits Winkler. This is the typical season for spring moisture and snowmelt in the Missouri River Basin, which means that the guard remains up and the work continues for entities like Nebraska’s Natural Resources Districts.