Farmers, ranchers bracing for impacts from flooding; health risks rise

by George Jared ([email protected]) 711 views 

Historic crests are expected along the Arkansas River in the coming weeks and it will impact farm land throughout the state. Many farmers with fields and cattle pastures along the river way have spent the past several days moving equipment and livestock as the waters rise, according to the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service.

Fort Smith and surrounding communities have been hit with record-setting waters, according to the National Weather Service, and that avalanche of water is expected to pour across the state in the coming weeks as it overwhelms other connecting rivers and tributaries on its way to the Mississippi River. Flood warnings and watches have been issued throughout the state along multiple rivers, according to NWS. Historic crests in some spots could last until the middle of June.

How much it could impact Arkansas’ planting season is unknown.

Pope County farmer Leslie Oats paused for a few moments since Tuesday (May 22). Oats grows row crops and hay and has been moving equipment for nearly a week.

“Between the row crop and the hay operation, we probably have 60 man hours in pulling pumps and moving equipment to higher locations,” he said as of Saturday. “Then find out they upped (the river forecast) and then moving equipment to new locations. We’ve been at it for the third day.”

Oats has high quality hay that’s ready for harvest, but there isn’t the manpower or time to clear the fields.

“If we weren’t in this situation today, we’d probably be cutting. It’s ready to cut, but it probably won’t happen because if the water gets as high as they say it might, it’ll be taken in. All we can do is pray that it will not get as high as they think it will,” he said. “This is the first nice hay weather we’ve had, and it’s beautiful hay weather the next few days, and we can’t cut. It’s not even raining and we get flooded out.”

Farmers could feel the impacts in other ways, too. Fertilizer is carried up and down the river by barges, and barge traffic could be impacted for several months.

Debris and disease-causing bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella could also have significant impacts, according to UA scientists.

Images on social media show floodwater carrying rafts of debris such as branches and litter. One photo on Twitter showed a syringe washing ashore amid pieces of flotsam and jetsam. In addition, some municipal sewage treatment systems may had have parts swamped by floodwaters.

“Flooding can cause sewage systems to overflow, releasing pathogenic bacteria,” said Mike Daniels, professor-water quality for the UA. “Floodwaters can also interact with animal wastes and transport pathogens too.”

John Pennington, extension urban stormwater agent for the Division of Agriculture in Jefferson County, said flooded areas need to be approached with a high level of caution.

“I can’t say for certain that Pine Bluff Wastewater Utility has sewage lift stations underwater at this time, but at least some of the sewer system is underwater,” he said.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration “bacteria such as E. coli, Salmonella, and Shigella, and viruses like Hepatitis A, tetanus, and agents of typhoid can all be carried in flood water,” Pennington said. “Workers in flood water need to make sure they don’t enter flood water if they have broken skin. If they are entering a potentially contaminated area, workers should put on rubber gloves, boots, waders and other protective clothing to prevent contact with floodwaters.”

Flooding can also compromise well water.

“If a wellhead has been submerged by flood waters, it is highly probable that contamination has occurred, but if flooding has occurred nearby, then it is a good idea to have the water supply tested to assure the water quality is still safe for humans and livestock,” said Daniels. “If there’s any doubt about whether the quality of a water supply, have it checked.”

On Friday (May 25), Gov. Asa Hutchinson directed the Arkansas National Guard to deploy 26 members in anticipation of flooding that may continue through this week.

“We are preparing to deal with the record-breaking floodwaters that meteorologists and the Corps of Engineers are predicting for the coming days,” Hutchinson said. “I have directed General Berry to deploy two 13-member teams and will direct the deployment of more guardsmen as needed. If your local emergency management officials order an evacuation, please heed their warning.”