Farmers bracing for floods

Storms raise risk of planting delays

For the second year in a row, much of the U.S. is primed to suffer multibillion-dollar flood losses, with farmers already steeling themselves for planting delays.

Relentless storms that have marched across the Midwest and into the South this winter have already filled rivers to the brim and are threatening to make farmers' fields too soggy to plant as spring arrives. And there isn't much to suggest an easing ahead. Rains forecast through next week could push waterways higher where the Mississippi and Ohio rivers meet in Illinois, and into northern Mississippi and Arkansas.

Most states in the American heartland have had two to three times more moisture than normal so far this winter, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information. As the rains of March and April approach, it won't take much to cause big problems for farmers in the planting season, homeowners and businesses.

"Odds are we won't have the $20 billion in losses we had last year," said Jeff Masters, a meteorologist with Scientific American magazine. "But the odds are we will see multibillion-dollar losses."

Last year's flooding was the costliest in the past decade, easily overwhelming the 40-year average of about $3.7 billion a year.

Flooding on the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri rivers, as well as their tributaries, can slow the flow of grain, coal, steel, oil and gasoline across the U.S., as well as put greater demand on road and rail traffic. Faster currents can limit the number of barges in use or shut down waterways completely, affecting markets. Meanwhile, waterlogged fields can slow or prevent planting.

Last spring, heavy rains kept farmers from putting more than 11 million acres of corn into the ground, the most on record. That added an extra burden to farmers who were already dealing with the fallout from President Donald Trump's trade war with China.

The locked-in wetness this year and in 2019 could be a sign of climate change, according to Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. A warmer world means the atmosphere will hold more moisture. This type of "persistence is exactly what we expect to see happen" with climate change, Francis said.

The Ohio River, which feeds the Mississippi River with 60% of its flow south, nearly reached a major-flooding level last month at Cairo, Ill.

In the north, the Red River Valley that forms the border between North Dakota and Minnesota is another threat to farmers. While flooding is perennially a problem in that area, "the real issue is that there's overly saturated soils," said North Dakota farmer Monte Peterson. "That's not something I've seen in 40 years."

Peterson still has 1,000 acres of corn he hasn't harvested from last year, and he is bracing for more planting delays this year. "You can't help but be a little concerned that this is going to delay spring's work," he said.

This week's expected rain could push water up to flood levels at Cairo, said Jeff Graschel, a hydrologist with the Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center in Slidell, La. All of that water, as well as the flow from the upper Mississippi and the Missouri River, still has to make its way to the Gulf of Mexico, so flood conditions would last for weeks.

While much of the U.S. has been wetter than normal, California has been largely dry. Nearly 70% of California is currently abnormally dry or in drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor in Lincoln, Neb.

Information for this article was contributed by Michael Hirtzer of Bloomberg News.

Business on 03/03/2020