Southern Plains Perspective: USDA upstream flood control program

There is a new blog post out at the Southern Plains Perspective by Clay Pope! Read below:

Droughts often end with a deluge…that’s why we have the USDA upstream flood control program.

I had never heard the term “atmospheric river” before the recent stretch of insane rain on the West Coast, but boy am I familiar with the term now (here is a pretty interesting news story about hte west coast storms from the time of my writing this blog https://www.cnn.com/2023/01/17/weather/california-flooding-atmospheric-river-tuesday/index.html).  Some news sources are saying that the flooding will rank as one of the most expensive disasters in State History.  

While it’s good to see that part of the United States finally getting some moisture, it would be better if it didn’t all come at once.  Unfortunately, more frequent extreme, violent rain events seem to be part of the challenges that many experts are saying we will have to deal with as our climate continues to change.  On top of that, it often takes a heavy deluge to break severe droughts like the one currently plaguing so much of the Southern Plains.  With that in mind, I think it’s important to give a little “shout out” to a program that I consider to be one of the first climate adaption efforts undertaken by USDA—the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Program.

I have written about this program before,  and while the watershed program makes up close to a $15 billion investment in public infrastructure and saves the United States an estimated $2.3 billion  in flood damage that annually does not happen because of protection provided by the dams and other projects created under this program, most people have no idea that this initiative exists.   This includes many who live directly below these flood control structures.

Beginning with the passage of the flood control act of 1936 and then the watershed protection and flood control act of 1954, the Soil Conservation Service (now the Natural Resources Conservation Service or NRCS) was charged with planning and constructing watershed projects nationwide.  To date, NRCS has constructed over 11 thousand dams in over 2,000 watershed projects that provide flood control, water supplies, recreation, and wildlife habitat benefits to communities throughout the nation.  

Oklahoma and Texas both have over 2 thousand of these structures within their borders.  In Oklahoma alone, it’s estimated that the over 2,100 flood control structures in the state provide around $100  million in flood control savings annually. 

It’s important to remember that this program itself owes its existence largely to weather events similar to what we have recently seen in California.  After all, it was in response to the record flooding in the 1930s that finally broke the Dust Bowl drought that the USDA Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Program was originally created.   Ironically enough, the program showed its worth decades later when another round of record flooding hit Oklahoma and Texas in May of 2015 and broke the extreme drought that had plagued the two states since 2011. 

The difference couldn’t have been starker—with the best example being that of Hammon, Oklahoma

Hammon is a small town in far Western Oklahoma. During the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, Hammon, like so much of the region, was hit with a crushing drought.  Poor land management left the soil hard, erodible and nearly impervious to water.  When the rain finally came in April 1934 the Washita River swelled two miles beyond its banks in a 14 inch down poor. According to The National Weather Service, the flood that swept through Hammon took 17 lives and caused $53 million in damage in today’s dollars.

Fast forward to the record drought of 2011-15.  Hammon was again in the grip of record dry weather—at least they were until the spring of 2015 when in Late April and Early May the town was hit with over 26 inches of rain—nearly twice what they received in the flood of 1934.

The difference was that in 2015 there were 143 USDA flood control dams that had been constructed above Hammon and the surrounding area that held back nearly 60% of all the floodwater upstream, resulting in minimal damage to the town.

That tells the story.  Minimal damage in 2015……lives lost and $53 million in damage in 1934.

You can read more on the  comparisons of these two floods both with and without the Watershed Program https://www.nacdnet.org/2015/06/22/flood-control-structures-curb-major-losses/ and here https://conservation.ok.gov/from-drought-to-flood-the-hammon-story/.

One thing we can be certain of is that extreme weather will continue to challenge agriculture producers and our rural communities.  Climate Change means that droughts will tend to be longer and hotter, and rain events will have a tendency to be more violent and extreme.   We saw this play out in the Dust Bowl.  We saw it play out in the Southern Plains drought of the 1950s (which was worse in the Southern Plains than the Dust Bowl).  We saw it again in the record drought we faced in 2011-15.   And while these recent violent rains won’t necessarily break the horrible drought in California, the recent weather on the West Coast seems to be playing to script.   

If you’re interested in a little more information that on what USDA is doing in this area you might check out the podcast that we did with Dan Sebert Executive Director of the National Watershed Coalition,  or the episode we recorded with Larry Caldwell, Flood Control Program Specialist with USDA NRCS.  You can also learn a little about what the USDA Agriculture Research Service is doing in this area by listening to the podcast we recorded with Dr. Sherry Hunt, the Research Leader at the USDA ARS  Hydraulic Engineering Research Unit.

Its programs like the USDA Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Program that give us the tools we need to be ready for whatever mother nature throws our way.  Just thought it was due another “shout out.”

To read this post at the Southern Plains Perspective, click here.

To access all other content at the Southern Plains Perspective, click here.