Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

The Compleat Wetlander: Drought, Water and Wetlands along the Great Mississippi

“There is no food security without water security”

– United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization Director    General José Graziano da Silva

2012 was supposed to be a record year for agriculture in America’s heartland.  But not a year of record drought.  In January of 2012 the American Farm Bureau Federation reported that agricultural crops were producing record yields globally and climate change, even if it was happening, was not inhibiting production.  More specifically—

“Computer models have incorrectly accounted for certain climate patterns over recent decades, and data has shown fewer and less severe periods of drought and less severe flooding on a global scale….there would certainly be regional exceptions, but on a larger scale, climate patterns could prove to be quite suitable for agriculture.”

What a difference 9 months makes. This week, as Hurricane Isaac moves from New Orleans inland farmers anticipate little relief from the drought that grips 63% of the lower 48 states, much of it in the Mississippi River basin.  Droughts are also occurring in other parts of the world including Australia, South America, Africa and the Middle East

The Mississippi River Watershed is the fourth largest in the world.  It is the third longest river in North America, flowing 2,350 miles from its source at Lake Itasca in Minnesota through the center of the continental United States to the Gulf of Mexico.  The agricultural products raised here include 92% of the nation’s agricultural exports, 78% of the world’s exports in feed grains and soybeans, and most of the livestock and hogs produced nationally. Sixty percent of all grain exported from the US is shipped down the Mississippi.  In addition an estimated 18 million people and 50 major cities rely on the Mississippi for their public water supply.  It is home to 25% of all the fish species in North America.  It is the major flyway for 40% of the nation’s migratory waterfowl and 60% of all North American birds.

This year’s dry hot temperatures have withered corn, soybean, cotton, hay and other crops. It has forced farmers to sell livestock early and at a loss because they can’t afford the increased cost of feed.  Wells have dried up as groundwater has disappeared response to low recharge from rainfall and high retrieval rates for residential and municipal wells as well as agriculture.

Water levels in the Mississippi have been so low that barge travel has been halted while the U.S. Army Corps works furiously to dredge out stretches too shallow for barge travel.  Last week a lens of salt water was intruding toward New Orleans threatening the city’s water supply. Even hurricane Issac may do more harm than good for many farmers. The drenching rainstorms will make it impossible for them to harvest what little they have in the fields.  No one has begun to count the cost to wildlife.

This past July was hotter than the summer of 1936, the hottest summer on record for the lower 48 states.  It was the depths of the dustbowl.  However, the safety net for farmers started by Roosevelt’s New Deal will help although it would help a lot more if Congress would address next steps for the Farm Bill due to expire September 30.

Low yields drive up prices and  the overall impact on farmers will be highly variable depending on where and what they farm.  Despite meager rainfall, crop revenues this year will exceed pre-drought estimates.  The U.S. Department of Agricultureforecast in August of 2012 predicted record farm profits of $122.2 billion.

The Mississippi River basin has also been an area subject to extensive altered to support agriculture and many areas experiencing drought have also been subject to extensive conversion from wetlands to agriculture.  For example the state of Iowa has lost  more than 89% of its historic wetlands, Illinois 85% Missouri 87% and Arkansas 72 %.  Is there a role for wetlands restoration, conservation and management in reducing the impacts of drought on farmers in the Mississippi watershed and elsewhere?

There are any number of written materials supporting  the concept that wetlands can reduce the impacts of drought as one of the many benefits of wetlands.  Wetlands are frequently described as a sort of giant sponge absorbing floodwaters during high rainfall events and releasing them slowly during times of drought.

This is important for agriculture.  Agricultural crops need soil moisture. Soil moisture is largely retained between rain events through the presence of  organic matter in the soil. More organic matter matter =  more drought resistant soil .  Many kinds of wetlands create large amounts of organic matter.

Worldwide there is a growing interest in integrating ecosystem protection and agriculture.  Current practices are viewed as unsustainable and integration of natural resources such as wetlands into agriculture (rather than divorced degraded and isolated form agriculture) is viewed as the only viable alternative for feeding a growing world population in response to climate change.

On report released a year ago  by the International Water Management Institute stated that a radical overhaul of agriculture practices can create farms that enhance rather than degrade the world’s ecosystems:

Key recommendations of the reports include:

  • Value ecosystem services from agroecosystems and nonagricultural ecosystems
  • Manage agriculture as a continuum of agroecosystems
  • Collaborate between sectors
  • Manage rain, runoff and groundwater for multifunctional agroecosystems at river basin level
  • Use adaptive Integrated Water Resources Management
  • Specific opportunities: trees, drylands, wetlands, crop systems, aquaculture & fisheries, livestock systems

An integrated approach will mean many changes for U.S. farmers and this is hard.  For many farming is a multi-generation family business.  Farmers learn from and honor the practices taught to them by their parents and grandparents.  This would have to change.  But we have been here before.  The dust bowl era of the 1930’s brought enormous change in agricultural pracites in the U.S.  The Drought of 2012 may herald an era of similar adjustment.

Additional links:

Drought Drains mighty Mississippi (includes discussion of salt water intrusion threatening water supply.)

As the Drought Intensifies, Missouri Drills for Water

Drought Sends Mississippi in ‘uncharted territory’

U.S. Drought Monitor

Hurricane Isaac Offers Little Hope For Drought Relief

The Drought of 2012 (A story in pictures)

Expanding food production in a carbon constrained future

Food shortages could force world into vegetarianism, warn scientists

The State of the World’s Land and Water Resources

Food and Agriculture Organization Reports

Recurring droughts highlight need to better manage water resources, safeguard food security

NRCS Announcing Grants to Help Farmers, Ranchers Adapt to Drought

Role of wetlands in flood and drought


For more stories on the drought and its impact on the Mississippi River, visit:

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