The Midwest floods continue to be a slow-moving disaster. Towns, farms, and infrastructure are still underwater in Nebraska, and water will take months to work through the vast network of rivers, creeks, and streams that drain the Upper Midwest into the Gulf of Mexico.
The damage to the region could last much longer than that, though. It could require years to rebuild infrastructure, but the real challenge will be restoring the region’s greatest resource, the reason there are so many farms there in the first place: its soil.
Early estimates indicate the floods could be responsible for $440 million in crop losses in Nebraska, which sits at the epicenter of the floods. That number could easily rise the longer floodwaters cut farmers off from fields and prevent spring plantings. That’s bad news for a state where one in four jobs are tied to or supported by farming, according to the state’s Department of Agriculture. States next door are dealing with their own varying levels of crisis from rivers overtopping their banks.
Even after the floodwater recedes, the region’s farms and the soil they’re built on could face a long road to recovery, spanning years or decades. To understand why, you have to understand how these floods happened. After an extremely wet fall, winter arrived with a fury. Repeated blasts of cold froze the soil and heavy snow piled up on top of it. Then came the bomb cyclone a few weeks ago. It unleashed a blizzard in western Nebraska, but the eastern portion of the state saw rain and lots of it. Nearly three-quarters of Nebraska weather stations are seeing an increase in winter rain, according to Climate Central (full disclosure: I helped with this analysis when I worked there), a hallmark of the warming world.
Soaked soils couldn’t absorb the sudden influx of water, and so it began to run off into rivers and streams, scraping the earth away with it. Add in dam and levee failures, and the torrent truly clawed away at the Midwest’s most bountiful resource.
“Basically what it’s going to do is going to erode the most productive topsoil,” Mahdi Al-Kaisi, a soil and water specialist with Iowa State’s extension program, told Earther. “This is why we need to think about climate change more seriously. That’s become very destructive to this whole system and put a lot of stress on these surfaces.”
It’s not even just the top layer of soil that’s being ripped up and washed away. Where the floodwaters have receded, huge blocks of soil have been gouged away. The weight of the water has also compacted soil in some locations, while others are covered in sand and silt that’s been swept up by engorged rivers, neither of which is as nutrient-rich or structured as the soil that supports the wheat, soybean, and corn crops.
“You have the good stuff moving away and not as good stuff moving in,” Andrea Basche, an agronomist and soil scientist at the University of Nebraska, told Earther.
That puts farmers who depend on growing these crops for their livelihoods in a serious bind. They can try to plant this year’s crop, knowing productivity won’t be as high as it was, or they can set about to the arduous task of restoring topsoil to a more productive state. The first step is just letting fields dry out, something that could take weeks or even months. Farmers can assess how much sand they’re looking at, though Al-Kaisi warned that using heavy equipment to do those assessments could disturb or breakup any topsoil that is left.
For those lucky enough to be dealing with just a few inches of sand, they can just churn it up into the soil. But areas with more than 24 inches of sand could be lost causes. Nebraska’s extension service suggests that farmers dealing with that situation “[c]onsider the relative costs of moving the sand and of abandoning the crop area.” Basche suggested that farmers could also use compost or restore wetlands and prairie as other possible solutions for rebuilding soil, but it still could “take decades to restore productivity if it is ever the same in our lifetimes again.”
That timeframe could mean many farmers and ranchers end up walking away rather than deal with mounting costs or the specter of bankruptcy. Farm revenue in Nebraska, while important, has been declining, and Trump’s escalating trade wars have sapped an estimated $1 billion from Nebraska alone, according to the American Farm Bureau (though that number doesn’t take into account programs designed to offset losses). The state of the soil only makes the situation more dire.
All this reveals yet another way climate change is upending the systems we rely on. Al-Kaisi said in the future, farmers could focus on low- or no-till agriculture, and planting cover crops could help mitigate some of the impacts of flooding. Systemic changes are also needed, including rethinking flood protection as climate change ups the odds of heavy downpours and rain falling on snow.
“It was not designed to handle this,” John Remus, an Army Corps of Engineers manager said in a New York Times interview, referring to the intricate series of levees and dams that normally hold back the Missouri River. And the system will only be further taxed in the coming months, far from where the floods began.
“This is shaping up to be a potentially unprecedented flood season, with more than 200 million people at risk for flooding in their communities,” Ed Clark, director of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Water Center, said in a statement that went out with the agency’s spring flood outlook. That outlook shows that areas all along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers face major flood risks through May, meaning more fields will face the scouring power of water.
“We need to be really clear this is not just farmers’ problem,” Al-Kaisi said. “This is society’s problem.”
This post has been updated to reflect Basche’s expertise is in agronomy.