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"Conservation Matters" from the Wilson County Citizen (Fredonia, Kansas)

Posted by Peter Donovan 2 years, 1 month ago

How has water cycling changed over time here? Last week I reported on some precipitation and flow data. This week I'm reflecting on a newspaper clipping found in the Neodesha public library.

In the aftermath of the 1951 flood, a Neodesha newspaper reprinted a survey of historic flooding by Burritt Howell Hill. He was born in 1873, graduated from KU in 1894 with a degree in botany, and sold insurance in Neodesha. In 1929, Hill wrote that the frequency and severity of flooding on the Verdigris and Fall rivers had increased. He started with the post-settlement period.

"All the country at that time was covered with a heavy growth of grass interlaced with lakes, creeks and swamps, and along the rivers covered with heavy timber and in consequence thereof the rainfall was slow to get to the rivers and was carried away almost as fast as it came into the streams. . . ."

"With the late years of the nineties and early years of the new century came a depletion of the heavy grass due to overpasturing, drainage of lakes and swamps and the straightening of small creeks . . . So far in 1929 we have had three floods . . ."

"Not only have the floods been coming with greater regularity and frequency in later years but they have been reaching their flood stages much more quickly and in consequence thereof, have been of much longer duration and hence more destructive."

"For years the farmers, cities, road districts and industries have . . . drained the ponds and lakes, swamps and fields, straightened creeks and runs, cut off timber and brush, depleted grass and other moisture carrying vegetation . . . [the rivers have been] filling up with brush, trees, slides, accumulations of wash from floods . . . many islands have grown from mere sand and gravel bars to be masses of land and vegetation as high as the original banks of the streams and in some cases acres in extent. . . ."

Hill ended his 1929 piece by emphasizing the need for deepening and widening the main river channels so that they could carry away high flows "under these new and adverse conditions."

The dams on the Fall and Verdigris rivers reduced flooding downstream, but as I reported last week based on precipitation and flow data since the 1930s, there has been a substantial increase in runoff from the land, with a presumed decrease in the rates of water infiltration into the soil. The reservoirs are filling up with sediment. This follows the general trend in the Missisippi-Missouri basin, where the USGS reports rainfall increasing at 2.1% per decade from 1949 to 1997, and discharge at the mouth increasing at 4.5% per decade ( with $294 billion spent by USDA on soil conservation from 1935 to 2009 (

All this may reinforce the belief, given the necessity of growing food and fiber, that faster runoff, soil compaction, erosion, and floods are inevitable and unstoppable, and all we can do is treat the symptoms at mounting expense: dredging reservoirs, building more dams and structures, relying on FEMA and other government programs for compensating and subsidizing risk.

But agriculture and land management do have influence and agency over soil porosity and infiltration, which can slow runoff and erosion to a surprising degree. The soil health principles--soil cover, living roots, diversity, minimizing tillage, well-planned livestock grazing--are all ways for farmers and graziers to be truly entrepreneurial and creative about capturing sunlight and rain and transforming that work and power into net profit. People often ask, how can we make that happen? and then discuss regulation, subsidies, cost-share programs.

A better question might be, how to LET that happen? What if many more people realized that growing porous, water-accepting soil was possible, that it was practical and even profitable, that it was important to them and to their successors? I believe that local measurement and data, with participation by farmers and conservation districts, can help connect all kinds of people with these entrepreneurial possibilities. I was glad to share some simple and practical methods of measurement with the Wilson County Conservation District, some students and teachers, and some interested farmers. Thank you, and I hope to be back.