Rising flood waters of record proportions engulfed the upper Midwest in March, April, continuing in May, with recurring rains and rising floodwaters moving downstream to Missouri and states further south to the Gulf of Mexico. This unprecedented emergency is forecast to continue for weeks or months.
Unprecedented U.S. Flood Season Will Imperil Millions, Experts Warn
Two-thirds of the lower 48 states will have a heightened risk until May, NOAA forecast says, after severe flooding in the Midwest.
Oliver Milman - March 22, 2019
Severe flooding in the Midwest is set to only be a prelude to “unprecedented” levels of flooding across the U.S. in the coming months that will imperil 200 million people, federal-government scientists have warned. Nearly two-thirds of the lower 48 states will have a heightened risk of flooding until May, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecast.
The flooding has been fueled by rapid snow melt combined with heavy rainfall that has already inundated much of the Midwest and Great Plains, particularly in Nebraska and Iowa. The torrents of rainfall have not been able to penetrate the frozen ground, causing water to swell rivers and make them break their banks.
NOAA said that further spring rain, combined with melting snow, will make the flood threat “worse and geographically more widespread,” extending to Southern states such as Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. A string of small Missouri towns prepared for the next deluge along the raging Missouri River on Wednesday after flooding wreaked nearly $1.5 billion in damage in Nebraska, killing at least four people and leaving another man missing.
Surging waters after a late winter storm have already damaged hundreds of homes in the Midwest this week, and been blamed for at least three deaths, two in Nebraska and one in Iowa. The flooding led to trains being halted in Missouri, creating transportation problems for people and products. It also has taken a heavy toll on agriculture, inundating tens of thousands of acres, threatening stockpiled grain, and killing livestock.
Scientists say climate change is responsible for more intense and more frequent extreme weather such as storms, floods, droughts, and fires. According to last year’s U.S. government climate assessment, increasing precipitation has already increased flooding risks in the Midwest, causing widespread damage to property, soil erosion, and water-quality problems.
Slammed by a trade war and low commodity prices, Midwest family farms have been in the red and in decline for the last five years. The number of U.S farms fell by 100,000 between 2010 and 2017, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data.
Thousands more will now go under without emergency financial support for flooding, pummeling heartland economies almost entirely dependent on agriculture, farmers and aid groups said.
It is a call federal and state agencies, as well as non-governmental and faith-based relief groups are answering.
President Donald Trump has approved disaster declarations for Nebraska and Iowa, making federal disaster funding available in flood-hit areas. Missouri Governor Mike Parson declared a state of emergency, paving the way for similar actions in his state.
Businesses on the southwest side of Hamburg, Iowa, were flooded on March 17, 2019, from the flood waters of the Missouri River. Ryan Soderlin—Omaha World-Herald
“I know we aim for bringing everything back up to where it was,” said Rosalynn Days-Austin, a USDA emergency coordinator helping direct Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) efforts in flood-affected areas. “Sometimes that’s not always possible, for a variety of reasons, but the goal is definitely to help them bounce back from their loss.”
Relief groups like Farm Aid, established by country singer and activist Willie Nelson, are tending to the immediate needs of farmers, distributing tens of thousands of dollars in “emergency grants” - $500 gifts from cash donations that help families pay for things like groceries. After that, the group and its partners advise farming families on how to access federal disaster funds they hope are coming soon. . . .
Another immediate need is feed for livestock. Relief organization Farm Rescue is collecting donations of hay in the Dakotas and trucking it to farmers whose cattle are starving after their feed stands were submerged in floodwater.
U.S. farm belt slammed by floods, heavy snow from bomb cyclone
“I don’t know of anything this widespread that has ever affected so many people in our service area,” said Dan Erdmann, a spokesman for the group which helps family farms get through crises ranging from natural disasters to medical emergencies.
Farm workers, some of them undocumented and legal migrants, have been hit hard. Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska is looking at housing assistance for displaced people who previously paid around $300 a month rent and now face rents triple that due to a dearth in properties, said Stacy Martin, chief executive of the social services charity.
While relief groups tend to urgent needs, farmers like Scott Olson say more federal relief money is needed at a time when low crop prices and high debt levels are limiting farmers’ access to credit. He is counting on a farm relief bill in Congress for extra disaster compensation after he successfully lobbied in Washington for similar funds following 2011 flooding.
The Flooded Farm of Richard Oswald Near Langdon Missouri, Courtesy of Richard Oswald, Via AP
“Flood insurance isn’t going to cover this worth a darn. FEMA is worthless,” said Olson, who farms 3,000 acres near Tekamah, Nebraska and runs a farm equipment business. “They don’t have any money, nobody has any money.”
Reporting by Andrew Hay in New Mexico; Additional reporting by Tom Polansek in Chicago; editing by Bill Tarrant and Lisa Shumaker
Waves of new storms hit saturated ground throughout the Midwest, sending water barreling into already-swollen rivers, breaching levees, closing locks, flooding cities and approaching all-time flood records across the length of the Upper Mississippi River. The new rains and high water closed Upper Mississippi River locks and made it more likely that at least some closures could extend past mid-May, depending on further rainfall. .
"The extent of devastation and toll upon lives and livelihoods is a clear sign that we are unprepared."
Decimated crops will lead to increased food insecurity, stagnant waters will spread diseases, and as homes, schools, and businesses are swept away by the floodwaters, many will flee — if they’re able to.
AMERICA’S MOST ENDANGERED RIVERS OF 2019 SPOTLIGHTS CLIMATE CHANGE THREATS
With many urgent measures calling for immediate action, environmental concerns such as water quality and public drinking water quality are among those where the EPA, state, environmental, and public health agencies are needed to provide information and assistance.
In order to assess the magnitude and severity of environmental concerns including:
Runoff from thousands of CAFO hog farms,
Coal ash waste from coal-fired power plants,
Radionuclides from nuclear power power plants,
Pesticides and fertilizers such as nitrates from croplands,
Toxic chemicals and contaminants stored in Superfund sites,
calls for increased water quality testing for suspected contaminants to be performed, and reported to the public. Treatment for any increased levels of contaminants should be carried out as expeditiously as possible.
Fortunately there are eminent scientists at EPA, state environmental quality agencies, environmental and agricultural organizations who can be called upon for assistance, some of whom are addressed here. Unfortunately the EPA and state environmental agencies and administrators are faced with conflicting pressures when responding to environmental crises.
Runoff from thousands of CAFO hog farms
Lagoons of Pig Waste Are Overflowing After Florence
Below is an overview of the potentially major public health crisis currently taking shape with the flood waters engulfing thousands of concentrated animal feeding operation contaminants. This corresponds to billions of gallons of hog waste among other contaminants being carried down the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. More information on these issues is available from the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, Missouri Coalition for the Environment, the Sierra Club and their collaborating organizations.
Thousands of CAFOs are located in Nebraska, Iowa, and Missouri. Over the last two decades, small- and medium-scale farms raising animals for food have given way to factory farms that confine thousands of cows, hogs and chickens in tightly packed facilities.
Factory farms produce millions of gallons of manure that can spill into waterways from leaking storage lagoons or fields where manure is over-applied to soil. Manure generates hazardous air pollutants and contains contaminants that can endanger human health. Neighbors of factory farms, as well as the workers in them, often suffer intensely from overwhelming odors and related headaches, nausea and other long-term health effects.
Most farmers are not benefiting from this system of production because they are not getting paid much for the livestock that they raise. Even people thousands of miles away from these facilities are not immune to their impacts. Consumers eating the dairy, egg and meat products from factory farms can be exposed to foodborne bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella, as well as to the public health consequences of unchecked use of antibiotics.
And yet, the number and concentration of factory farms in the United States continues to increase.
Too Much Manure
The animals on factory farms produce tremendous amounts of manure.
Food & Water Watch estimates that the livestock and poultry on the largest factory farms in 2012 produced 369 million tons of manure — almost 13 times more than the 312 million people in the United States.[i] This 13.8 billion cubic feet of manure is enough to fill the Dallas Cowboys stadium 133 times.[ii] The household waste produced in most U.S. communities is treated in municipal sewer systems. But factory farm manure is stored in lagoons and ultimately applied, untreated, to farm fields as fertilizer.
Small, diversified farms that raise animals as well as other crops have always used manure as fertilizer without polluting water. The difference with factory farms is scale. They produce so much waste in one place that it must be applied to land in quantities that exceed the soil’s ability to incorporate it. The vast quantities of manure can — and do — make their way into the local environment where they pollute the air and water.
Replacing Independent Farmers
Most farmers have not benefited from the shift to factory farming. The number of dairy, hog and beef cattle producers in the United States has declined sharply over the last 20 years as the meatpacking, processing and dairy industries have driven farmers to increase in scale. The tiny handful of companies that dominates each livestock sector exerts tremendous control over the prices that farmers receive, and these companies micromanage the day-to-day operations of many farms. The real price that farmers receive for livestock has trended steadily downward for the last two decades. Most farmers barely break even. In 2012, more than half of farmers lost money on their farming operations.
UNION OF CONCERNED SCIENTISTS REPORT - INDUSTRIAL AGRICULTURE
CAFOs Uncovered: The Untold Costs of Confined Animal Feeding Operations (2008)
The rise of factory farming is no accident. It is the result of public policy designed to benefit big meatpackers and food processors that dominate the critical steps between farm and consumer. Factory farming was facilitated by three policy changes pushed by the largest agribusinesses: A series of farm bills artificially lowered the cost of the corn and soy that go into animal feed; the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ignored factory farm pollution; and the Department of Justice allowed the largest meatpackers to merge into a virtual monopoly.
Also, according to Iowa sources, bank loans for CAFOs come with a US government-backed loan guarantee.
What You Can Do About It
Policies made at all levels of government contributed to the rise of factory farms, so all levels of government will need to make changes to rein in this industry.
Congress should restore sensible farm programs that do not prioritize the production of artificially cheap livestock feed over fair prices to crop farmers.
The EPA should enforce appropriate environmental rules to prevent factory farm pollution.
The Food and Drug Administration should reverse the approval of nontherapeutic antibiotic and other livestock drugs that facilitate factory farming at the expense of public health.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture must enforce regulations that allow independent livestock producers fair access to markets.
State environmental authorities must step up their coordination and enforcement of regulations on factory farms.
Take action. Check out our complementary report at:
[i] USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. 2012 Census of Agriculture. United States Summary and State Data at Tables 11, 12 and 20; Food & Water Watch calculation comparing human and livestock waste production based on EPA (2004) at 9. [ii] USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. “Agricultural Waste Management Field Handbook.” Chapter 4, Agricultural Waste Characteristics. March 2008 at 4-12 to 4-20; Dallas Cowboys. [Press release]. “Dallas Cowboys Stadium Design Statement.” December 12, 2006. [iii] USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. 2012 Census of Agriculture. United States at Table 5 at 14.
Historic Midwest flooding sparks concerns about drinking water,
FLOOD WATER COVERS HIGHWAY 59 AS IT APPROACHES TOWN ON MARCH 22, 2019 IN CRAIG, MISSOURI. CREDIT: SCOTT OLSON/GETTY IMAGES
APR 4, 2019
Record-shattering floods across the Midwest have devastated parts of the region, with thousands of residents now facing a long and expensive recovery.
But even in areas that managed to avoid the worst of the damage, local experts are worried about a range of environmental hazards — from drinking water to Superfund sites — that pose a serious threat to public health. With flooding predicted to worsen throughout the region due to climate change, those risks won’t dissipate when these floodwaters recede.
“We have radioactive waste in our floodplain in Bridgeton,” Heather Navarro, executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment (MCE), told ThinkProgress. “There’s coal ash in our floodplains as well as wastewater treatment plants. [And] many farms spread excessive amounts of manure and this waste gets swept away, along with other chemicals on farm fields and even livestock.”
The flooding began three weeks ago, after a “bomb cyclone” hit the region and unleashed a torrent of snow, which then melted. Several states along the upper stretch of the Missouri River took a major hit; in Nebraska, entire towns were isolated by the flooding. Native communities on reservations have struggled to access food and water, while farms across the area have suffered massive livestock loss along with ruined harvests.
Environmental issues raised by the region’s flooding range dramatically, but all point to the long-term problems that accompany an uptick in rain and extreme weather events. At least seven Superfund sites have been threatened by flooding since the waters first begin rising, in Iowa, Missouri, and Nebraska.
While the damage has been less severe in Missouri, road closures and the persistent threat of rising waters continue to impact the state, even as the floodwaters begin to recede. That’s weighing on officials and experts in the state, who are monitoring a number of problem areas with an eye toward the coming weeks; a new forecast by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts even more unprecedented flooding this spring.
“Missouri has two sites we’re keeping our eye on,” Brian Quinn, who works with the state’s Division of Environmental Quality (DEQ), told ThinkProgress: the Conservation Chemical Company site and the St. Joseph City Landfill site, also known as the McArthur Drive Landfill.
One of those, the Conservation Chemical Company site, is classified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a Superfund site — an area so severely contaminated it has been designated for cleanup by the federal government. It is also one of two sites the EPA has said it is currently monitoring amid the flooding; the second is the Nebraska Ordnance Plant in Mead, Nebraska.
Missouri’s other area of concern, the landfill, was roughly half inundated by flooding, Quinn said, and the state is still monitoring the site for damage.
The Midwest’s flooding crisis is a terrifying preview of climate impacts to come
According to the U.S. government’s National Climate Assessment (NCA) released last fall, the Midwest will face a steady rise in heavy downpours and flooding as climate change worsens. That will affect everything from air quality to infrastructure to agriculture, in addition to hitting the region’s fossil fuel-dependent electricity system hard.
Ed Smith, the policy director for MCE, told ThinkProgress that environmental hazards are an increasing source of concern in Missouri as flooding worsens. One major worry is coal ash, the toxic remains of coal after it is burned, which includes lead and arsenic. “A lot of our coal ash facilities are located in flood plains,” said Smith.
President Donald Trump’s administration has worked to weaken coal ash regulations, but Missouri has been a rare case where the EPA has deemed the state’s proposed coal ash standards too weak to protect the environment and human health. Ameren, a power company, is also under pressure from residents to remove coal ash ponds in Labadie, Missouri, not far from St. Louis in the eastern part of the state.
“We’ve constantly been concerned about floods,” said Smith, pointing to the public health and environmental threat posed by coal ash, which can cause major damage to the nervous system and harm wildlife.
Also on Smith’s mind is the closed West Lake Landfill, a Superfund site in Bridgeton, Missouri. The unlined, mixed-waste landfill has been shown to contain radioactive waste. And while flooding hasn’t impacted that area at present, Smith worries about long-term ramifications, like increased risk of contamination. “With each passing flood, there is a flushing effect. Goes up, comes down, goes up… [it’s] going to impact the radioactive material that the EPA chooses to leave at the site,” he said.
Communities’ concerns extend beyond the nearby Superfund sites. “The other issue with which we’re dealing is flooding of private drinking water wells, along with public drinking water and wastewater treatment systems in communities along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers,” said Quinn, of the Missouri DEQ.
Around a dozen public drinking water systems have been impacted by the flooding in Missouri, along with six public wastewater systems. Flooding escalates the risk of bacteria associated with agriculture — including fecal matter — but it also carries chemicals, sewage, and other contamination into water systems.
Quinn advised private well water users in particular that they should rely on bottled water until follow-up tests give them the all-clear. “From a public and environmental health perspective, flooding presents a staggering array of short- and long-term problems,” he said.
Efforts to address the risks associated with climate change and pollution are in part the responsibility of local governments. But the Trump administration is also in the process of rolling back environmental regulations that are key to safeguarding the environment and public health in the wake of extreme events like the Midwest flooding. Experts say plans to replace the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule would endanger the environment and reduce the protection wetlands offer from flooding. And the president’s 2020 budget proposal would cut EPA funding by 31% — including funding for Superfund site remediation.
That’s particularly worrying for local experts in states like Missouri, where pollution and overdevelopment without regard for climate resiliency are exacerbating flooding issues. According to Smith, as flooding worsens, those factors will continue to be a severe problem. “I think that one of the things that we need to recognize is that climate change is only playing a part when it comes to flooding issues,” he said.
It might seem counterintuitive, but global warming plays a role in blasts of bitter cold weather. The reason: It influences the jet stream. Here’s how.
BY BOB BERWYN, INSIDECLIMATE NEWS
FEB 2, 2018
The polar jet stream can be several miles deep and more than 100 miles wide, with the strongest winds typically 5 to 10 miles above the ground. In this NASA visualization (see the 30-day animation below), the fastest winds are in red; slower winds are in blue. Credit: NASA
The jet stream—a powerful river of wind high in the atmosphere—shapes the Northern Hemisphere's weather, including bitter cold snaps. Because it plays a key role in weather extremes, climate scientists are striving to understand its changing dynamics.
Here's a closer look at what the jet stream is, what's influencing its wobbly behavior and why it matters.
First things first: What is the jet stream? The jet stream races from west to east at speeds up to 275 miles an hour, undulating north and south as it goes.
This powerful river of wind transports moisture and moves masses of cold and warm air and storm systems along its path. During the hurricane season, it sometimes helps push Atlantic tropical storms away from the East Coast.
The northern polar jet stream (it has a counterpart in the Southern Hemisphere) is driven partly by the temperature contrast between masses of icy air over the North Pole and warmer air near the equator. Climate change, true to the predictions of the past half century, has led to faster warming in the Arctic than in the temperate zones. So the temperature difference between the two regions has been lessening.
Research suggests that this reduction in the temperature difference is robbing the jet stream of some of its strength, making it wobblier and contributing to more temperature extremes.
What's the jet stream's role in extreme weather?
The jet stream is strongest in winter, when it has the greatest effect on weather in more densely populated parts of North America and Eurasia.
When it rolls along in relatively steady waves, normal weather ensues, with spells of cold, snow and intermittent warm-ups. But when it coils far to the south, bitter cold Arctic air spills southward along with it.
Wriggling like a garden hose, each southward kink in the wind tends to be balanced out by a northward bend somewhere else. That can lead to the western states, even Alaska, being unusually warm and dry while the middle of the country and the eastern states freeze.
How is the jet stream changing?
Scientists say there is strong evidence that human-caused global warming has altered the strength and path of the powerful winds. Over the past several decades, the jet stream has weakened. There's also evidence that as it wobbles, it can get stuck out of kilter, which can lead to more persistent weather extremes, including heat waves, cold snaps, droughts and flooding.
Not to be outdone by those crazy Danish bastards out on the isle of Samso, Science Daily reports an equally crazy group of Missourian bastards in Rock Port now generate all their electricity using wind turbines. Rock Port went completely wind-powered last week, making use of the 75 wind turbines spread out across three Missouri counties, and local experts are excited about the potential for wind power throughout the state. However, PopSci thinks it won't be so easy to make this a widespread trend in the US.
For starters, Rock Port only has 1300 residents, which is much easier to power using renewable energy than most places. Wind power currently accounts for 1% of total power consumption, and the US government only sees it providing around 20% of the power needed to run the country in the future. And even for that to happen, turbines need to become dramatically more efficient. But I'm not trying to rain on Rock Port's parade (which I'm sure every eco-freak would have gathered for, had it not added to their carbon footprint).