LEXINGTON, Mo. • From atop the Ike Skelton Bridge, the Missouri River looks a couple of degrees below angry. The river is irascible, perhaps, a bit indignant, but not yet raging, not here, under Highway 13 on the road that connects Lafayette County to Ray County.
Here, the water has room to roam, and it is doing that, filling up some bottomland through chutes that give the swollen river an outlet. For now, the soybean and corn fields to the north and south are fine, still available for spring planting. The railroad tracks are dry.
That’s not the case about 180 miles northwest, in Langdon, where the farmhouse Richard Oswald’s father built is under water, like most of the farms and many of the small towns along the Missouri River in northwest Missouri, in eastern Kansas, in Iowa and Nebraska.
That’s where Oswald was when we talked on Friday, in Auburn, Neb., staying with his fiancée. He won’t be back to his 160-acre farm for a couple of weeks at best. He won’t be able to work the fields and start cleaning up after the Flood of 2019 for at least a month.
“I’m no youngster,” Oswald says. “I’m 69 years old. I’ve lived here all my life. And I’ve never seen weather like this.”
I first talked to Oswald in 2011, the last time his farm flooded. At the time, he wrote an op-ed for the Post-Dispatch editorial page, lamenting the inability to manage the Missouri River Basin for flood control, trying to balance the interests of farmers, business owners, environmentalists and recreational users, leading to situations like those in 2011, and again in 2019, where the U.S. Corps of Engineers releases a deluge of furious flows from the Gavins Point Dam in Yankton, S.D., knowing full well what is likely to come.
Here’s what Oswald wrote in 2011 when his farm was under water.
“The corps does everything by an operations manual. This is supposed to de-politicize the river so that everyone knows what to expect — even in the face of unusual events. Special interests and politics have rewritten that guide through the Missouri River Compromise so that it now seems to create more of these unusual events than it solves,” he wrote. “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ River Manual is the equivalent of what an average citizen could expect if he allowed special interests to plan his vacation. This year, the corps seems to have planned mine.”
About an hour after we spoke, Oswald emailed me the most recent corps river advisory. The corps had hoped to drop Gavins Point Dam water releases below 20,000 cubic feet per second by Friday night. Instead they would be increased to 32,000 cubic feet per second on Saturday. Releases from the Fort Randall Dam upstream were also supposed to increase.
It takes about a day and a half for the water to get from Fort Randall to Gavins Point; and another couple of days for the water to get from South Dakota to Oswald’s farm, nestled between Interstate 29 and the Missouri River, which marks the border between Missouri and Nebraska.
This year’s forced summer vacation will be a long one.
“My house has been flooded four times,” Oswald says. He ticks off the years: “1952, 1993, 2011, 2019. This is the first time water’s been on the ground floor.”
For a variety of reasons, the Missouri River — and to a certain extent the Mississippi, too — is no longer acting like a “big river” able to absorb the blow of a big snowpack and heavy spring rain, says Washington University scientist Bob Criss. In 2016, he published a paper that outlined the problem.
It’s a combination of factors, Criss wrote. Climate change is making weather patterns more intense. But America’s big rivers in the middle of the country have been walled off, taking away their room to move, as they did more than a century ago, reclaiming flood plain when there was too much water to contain.
“The big rivers have no place to go so, now they’re acting like small rivers,” Criss says.
There’s another problem, Oswald notes.
“There has been a lot of talk about infrastructure these days,” he says. Indeed, Gov. Mike Parson in Missouri is seeking money to replace old bridges. President Donald Trump keeps talking about coming up with money for river and road projects, but little progress is made. “These dams and levees we rely on are all 80 to 90 years old. They aren’t able to sustain the kind of weather events we see in the age of climate change.”
For farmers like Oswald, it’s been a tough year. Trump’s trade war has cut corn and soybean prices in half. The flood has claimed 20,000 bushels of corn he had stored, and he won’t be able to plant this year. Crop insurance will keep him afloat.
Like other veterans of big floods, Oswald says this one is different:
“It’s a lot more intense than what we’ve experienced in other floods. This is the very worst.”