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Missouri levee blast inundates acres of farmland

May 4, 2011

The Army Corps of Engineers blew a two-mile hole into the Birds Point levee, which has flooded 130,000 acres of farmland in Missouri's Mississippi County, in an effort to protect nearby Cairo, Ill., from rising floodwaters.

The Army Corps of Engineers blew a two-mile hole into the Birds Point levee, which has flooded 130,000 acres of farmland in Missouri’s Mississippi County, in an effort to protect nearby Cairo, Ill., from rising floodwaters.

But farmers who pleaded unsuccessfully for the Supreme Court to stop the blast, which diverted floodwaters and inundated their land, had 130,000 acres of severely damaged farmland and close to $100 million in crop losses, a farmers’ association said. About 100 homes are in the deluged area, according to Army engineers.

The purpose was to divert floodwaters from Cairo, a town of about 3,000.

The government engineers blasted the first hole into the Birds Point levee site at Sikeston, Mo., at about 10 p.m. Monday and the second one at around noon Tuesday, said Lisa Coghlan, spokeswoman for the Army engineers in Sikeston.

Flood stage for the Mississippi River in the area is normally 40 feet, but on Monday, the water was at 61.72 feet, the engineers said. By Tuesday, after the two blasts, the water was receding and had fallen to 60.12 feet, the engineers said.

“It was definitely a success,” Coghlan said. The engineers planned to stage one more blast, probably today, depending on how quickly they could move equipment through the rain-soaked area, Coghlan said.

“The ground is absolutely just mush,” she explained. “It’s been raining for two weeks and today is actually the first sunny day.”

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, toured the area around the blast Tuesday. The state asked the Supreme Court to block the water diversion onto the Missouri farms, but the court declined.

“We had hoped that this wouldn’t happen,” said Blake Hurst, state farm bureau president. “We had asked the court to explore every other alternative, but it (the diversion) did happen. The rains over the last few days have been worse than they had forecast. What’s done is done. Our concern now is that the farmers will be compensated.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said farmers who have crop insurance will be eligible for government reimbursement.

The diversion means more than soaked soil, said Hurst, whose organization represents more than 100,000 farmers. The grading and drainage necessary for farmland to perform efficiently are badly degraded, and such things as grain bins and irrigation equipment are damaged, he said. This year’s crops in the area — known for corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton — are lost, Hurst said.

The blasts did nothing to ease risks downstream, where the Army Corps of Engineers warns that the Mississippi River could rise to its highest levels since the 1920s.

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