Columbia farmer questions Corps of Engineers policies

Farm Forum

COLUMBIA – Some of the corn Andrew Davis planted southeast of Columbia won’t be coming up because of water that has crept up in the last couple of weeks.

Davis, 28, isn’t that upset. The land is James River bottom land, and he figures you’re successful if you get to farm bottom land about 50 percent of the time. When the area produces a crop, it’s a bonus, he said. Besides, Davis still expects to have a good year farming.

Dean Ringgenberg and some of his neighbors, though, are upset. Ringgenberg is one of Davis’ landlords. The corn that was lost was on land owned by Ringgenberg and his wife, Lori. The Ringgenbergs and Davis both benefit from the sale of the crops.

Ringgenberg believes the water is a problem because of decisions made at the Jamestown Reservoir in North Dakota.

Right now, the combined releases from the Jamestown and Pipestem Reservoirs, both in North Dakota, are at 1,200 cubic feet per second.

Ringgenberg wishes the releases from the reservoirs would have started earlier and had stayed at 950 to 1,000 cfs, rather than escalating to 1,200 cfs.

“I’m just disgusted that they had to wait so long and then to release it at that rate,” he said.

If the area is going to flood, he said, it should happen by April. Ringgenberg and neighboring farmers, he said, shouldn’t have to worry about flooding in May and June. This year’s water problems could have been prevented, he said.

Ringgenberg blames the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Jamestown and Pipestem reservoirs are along the James River and Pipestem Creek, immediately north of Jamestown, N.D.

Pipestem is a corps project, and Jamestown is a Bureau of Reclamation project that is regulated by the corps when the reservoir is in the flood control zone.

The flooding is currently minimal between Columbia, where the James and Elm rivers meet, and the Tacoma Park area.

But a flood warning for the James River near Columbia was in effect June 14-15.

According to the National Weather Service, the James River at Columbia will continue to slowly rise and will likely not reach a crest until June 19. Flooding of lowland and agricultural land will continue through late June.

The bottom land Davis farms for Ringgenberg totals about 200 acres. Right now, about 30 of those acres have water on them. If the water stays at that level, it’s not too bad, Ringgenberg said. But he and Davis expect the water surrounding the James to continue rising.

Ringgenberg feels flooding wouldn’t have been a problem if the combined cfs level from North Dakota stayed at 950 to 1,000.

Brian Twombly, a hydraulic engineer with the Corps of Engineers in Omaha, said the corps had to increase the flow to 1,200 cfs because of snowmelt and additional rainfall. This was all along the James River, he said. When it melted in the Aberdeen area and South Dakota, most of it infiltrated into the soil, he said.

“But there was some extra snow above the reservoirs that melted and caused some pretty good runoff into the reservoirs and higher pool levels.”

There was also some good rainfall in May, he said. Some areas above the reservoirs had 5 inches of rain.

Before the rain in May, the combined release was 1,050 or 1,100 cfs.

“So we were trying to stay below 1,200 to benefit the folks downstream. Then after the rain, we got some additional storage, and we felt like we needed to go to 1,200,” Twombly said.

Twombly thinks the release level will probably stay at 1,200 until early to mid-July.

Since the beginning of the year, he said, the corps has been communicating with agencies up and down the river.

One of the real difficulties in regulating the river in this part of South Dakota, he said, is the travel time. At least three weeks is required for water to travel from the reservoirs near Jamestown to South Dakota.

It takes a long time for a release reduction to get to the Aberdeen area, Twombly said.

Ringgenberg said he and his neighbors believe the corps follows a 40-year-old handbook and is afraid to deviate from it.

But Twombly said the updated water control plans were finalized in 2008 “and we don’t vary too much from that. But within that, there is some flexibility built in, especially with our magnitude of our peak releases. It gives us a range of where we can be.”

Right now, those plans allow the combined release to be anywhere from 750 to 1,800 cfs. The actual number now is right about in the middle of that range, he said. “And we get that through a lot of agency coordination each year about how to go within the ranges that the plan gives us.”

Reservoir flood control releases from Jamestown and Pipestem reservoirs began April 27 and have been at the 1,200 cfs level since May 23.

As of May 9, the combined release was 1,050 cfs. At that point, the Corps of Engineers said the combined release was expected to be no higher than 1,100 cfs unless significant rainfall was received.

Releases from the reservoirs were expected to fall below 1,200 cfs in early June. But in a release May 31, the corps said that during the last 30 days, “above normal rainfall has occurred in much of the James River and Pipestem Creek basins upstream of the reservoirs.”

The Columbia area experienced flooding for three straight years. Davis said his 2009 corn crop was harvested July 27, 2010.

But last year, farming conditions were good, Davis and Ringgenberg said.

This year, “We have the makings of another good year,” Davis said. Farmers could just “use a little more heat.”

But Davis would still like to see the James River channel widened, as it’s been in North Dakota. He’d also like to see a greater use of drain tile in South Dakota.