Flood Control Dams Minimize Flood Damage
Brian Sheffield, 31, rests his left arm on the silver toolbox of the double-cab pickup.
Scotty Herriman, less than two weeks from his 70th birthday, sits on a concrete slab of an unfinished barn.
In the background, over Herriman’s right shoulder are steps that lead to nowhere.
They used to lead to Sheffield’s front door of the mobile home where he, his wife and their young daughter lived.
Then the merciless floods of May came sweeping through this bottom ground near the Arkansas River, south of Fort Gibson.
The frame of their home is a quarter mile away, while the walls and the roof are even farther down in the tree line. Stalks and a few withered cobs are all that remain of a corn crop that was waist high.
It’s mid-June now, and Sheffield is still looking for answers, about agriculture and a whole lot more.
Herriman, who is also the Area III Commissioner of the Oklahoma Conservation Commission (OCC), along with staff of the OCC, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture (ODAFF) have gathered at Sheffields’ farm to help with the “what now” phase of this disaster.
Later in the day, these individuals were joined by other staff members of those agencies to answer the questions of producers south of Sallisaw, near Spiro. It was an opportunity to go to the fields and address specific issues to help producers move forward.
The first stop, including the discussions between Herriman and Sheffield, provide a good example of the one-on-one nature of these visits.
On this morning, Sheffield and Herriman are separated not only by about 5 yards, but close to 40 years in age. They aren’t neighbors in the geographical sense, with Herriman farming near South Coffeyville, Okla., a little more than a 100 miles away. However, before this morning is over, Sheffield will realize that he and Herriman share pain, knowledge and hope.
This round of floods inundated Herriman’s farm ground, leaving it underwater for 11 days. Now the no-till farmer is back in the fields planting soybeans – but that’s only part of the common denominator. Herriman, after looking around, tells Sheffield the situation down here by the Arkansas River is worse than what Herriman faced this time on the Verdigris River. At that point, Herriman rolls back the clock to share the pain of the 2007 flood. Historic flooding to the north in southeast Kansas sent massive amounts of water into Oklahoma. Herriman had experienced floods in the 1970s and 1980s, but this one was 5 feet higher than the others. It destroyed their mobile home and left straw in some power lines. The Herriman family harvested 13 acres of wheat. That’s all that was left.
Herriman lived in 2007, what Sheffield is experiencing in 2019.
So with a steady tone, Herriman looked at the younger producer and said, “I don’t know how your faith is, but I turned it over to God and said, ‘There isn’t no way I can do this.’ The biggest thing that pulled me through was my faith with Jesus Christ. You think, ‘Well yeah, that’s an easy thing to say,’ but I was flat out broke and ruined for the year. There’s no reason God can’t pull you through this. You’ve got the physical strength, but you have to have the mental strength with the help from Him. It will work.”
And then to lighten the moment, Herriman adds, “Another good thing is a skidder with a grapple.”
Sheffield laughs and responds, “Those are handy.”
Returning to a serious note, Herriman said that in addition to faith, family and friends are crucial.
So Sheffield told him how impressed he and his wife were by not only long-time friends, but strangers who have become friends.
As the waters rose rapidly, recovering items from their home became something they had to tackle with boats. They would put the boats in at State Highway 10 and then travel about a half mile or more to the home.
“We started out with two boats,” Sheffield said, “but we ended up having about five boats because people would stop and say, ‘Hey do you guys need some help?’ It was a really bad situation that had a shining light behind it.”
After Herriman spoke, the discussion turned to some questions frequently asked since the floods, including applications of poultry litter.
More questions, more answers
Jeremy Seiger, the ODAFF Director of Agricultural Environmental Management Services, said, “One of the questions that has come up is how do you treat your field if you’ve already applied the allocation of nutrients. I think where you start is with a complete soil sample. What does that soil sample tell you? It’s going to tell you what has washed out of there and what needs to be added back in there for good production. It could be a reset. You think about what it can do is build structure and put organic matter back in the ground, and about the water holding capacity and the slow release of nutrients. Then you think, ‘We don’t need to hold any water,’ but we’re going to get out of this pattern, this anomaly flood, and we’re going to get back to a situation where that’s going to be important. Poultry litter is a good source. Just make sure you document your use.”
Another common question has been, “What do I plant now?”
Greg Scott, an OCC Soil Scientist, said, “We cannot talk about what to come back with now until you tell us about your operation. What do you normally do? What do you grow, what do you market?”
Sheffield says they usually plant about three-quarters of their acres to soybeans and a quarter of their acres to corn.
“A lot of this ground is heavier and we’re usually the last to dry up and if corn goes in, it usually goes in late,” Sheffield said. “Soybeans do really well down here.”
Scott then shared that on the way, he and Jake Boyett, NRCS Soil Scientist, stopped and “dug some holes.”
“In terms of the soil, you got a gift of about a quarter of an inch of silt, not much,” he said. “And like you say these are heavy soils. They almost never saturate and they weren’t saturated even under this flood. The soils are already becoming aerobic again. That good smell is already coming back.”
Sheffield replies, “So being 14 days under water didn’t saturate it?”
“No, because with these heavy clays when you move heavy water through them, the only place you are going to move water through them is through the worm channels and the cracks,” Scott said.
That’s the good news.
“The soil resource itself has not been impacted so much, but I would expect that your weed pressure impact is going to be significant,” Scott said. “Those are the issues we see from the soil perspective. If you were going to do something, like say try to grow a mixed cover to kind of get the soil back to life, the time to plant it is this afternoon. That’s because the competition from the weeds is going to develop so rapidly.”
Seiger added, “You may have weeds that you didn’t have here before,” and Herriman said, “You are going to have my weeds.”
Then Herriman asked Sheffield what he was hoping to do next.
“We are going to try to go with beans,” Sheffield said.
While the majority of his ground could go to soybeans there will be some acres not ready for that.
Boyett said, “The best option is to plant it if you can, but some of that lower area has sand on it. If we’ve got a window to get some residue down there with the cover crop, we can come up with a mix. We can do a simple three or four or five species all the way up to Greg can come up with 15. It depends on what crop you are going to next on what we want to do, how much residue from the cover crop you can handle with your planter, and what your termination method is going to be. It will get those root channels established and start getting some of that porosity put back into that soil. It will start to build the structure and get some organic matter into it.”
Throughout the day
Scott reflected on what he and Boyett and others saw specifically throughout the day in the areas they visited.
“The flood damage to facilities and equipment is devastating,” Scott said. “Of course, crop losses are 100 percent, and some Bermuda fields will recover through the summer, but some may need to be sprigged in spots. On the soil side, not so bad. Most of the soils were sealed over with silt and were not saturated, and are already becoming aerobic again. The silt ranged from a quarter to 4 inches deep where we looked, and will make a significant addition to the soils. There is more silt below Robert S. Kerr Lake than at Ft. Gibson.”
They discussed the issues of: nitrogen loss; floodwater impact on soil pH; when it might be beneficial to incorporate the silt; cover crop possibilities; the need to get a cover back on the soil right away; the value of the standing wheat for shade and weed control, and other topics.
“There are more areas of siltation than scouring, although we saw one significant scour area along a natural levee where the velocity was high,” Scott said. “True areas of pure sand deposits are uncommon, and mostly confined to the lowest level of the flood plain that already has Kiomatia soils in place. The new sand will become a horizon on the already sandy Kiomatia soil. We did not visit any fields in the Webbers Falls area that are reported to have sand issues.
“There are areas of ponding where the flooding appears to have enhanced the wetland processes by creating blocks in backwater drains. Producers will need to take action on these areas promptly. They should request wetland determinations to assess the pre-flood conditions, and remove sediment to re-establish the pre-flood elevation of wetland areas, if they want to minimize their jurisdictional wetland areas. Jake Boyett is the contact for wetland determinations in this area.”
Throughout the day, there were many questions asked and several individuals very willing to help.
There was a lot of advice given and a tremendous amount of support displayed.
On that first stop of the day, as Herriman and Sheffield walked from a field that once contained a promising crop, Herriman stopped and faced Sheffield, and said, “You can do it. You can do it.”