December 14, 2009

Grant fuels floodplain management research

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Dismantling levees in rural areas from Rock Island to St. Louis and letting the Mississippi run its course would decrease the risk of flooding in riverside cities and towns, restore nearby wetlands and make for a cleaner water supply. But what about farmers who grow crops in those areas?

“We’d need to find a compromise so we could have productive farmland where farmers could still get an income while at the same time providing those ecosystem services to society,” says Silvia Secchi, an economist in the College of Agricultural Sciences at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Secchi belongs to research group that includes ecologists, an engineer and a geologist; the group urges a major shift in floodplain use and management. Members would like to see levees on farmed floodplains removed or at least set back. To offset the costs of that change, the group also recommends that farmers grow biomass crops instead of corn on these flood-prone fields, and they say farmers should get a little something extra from the rest of us for their trouble. The group’s article on sustaining floodplains by reconnecting them to rivers appeared in the Policy Forum section of the Dec. 11 issue of Science Magazine, an international weekly journal.

Secchi thinks native grasses such as switchgrass, a perennial crop used in producing cellulosic ethanol, would make an excellent alternative to corn. Switchgrass can take both flooding and drought, and it doesn’t need much in the way of chemicals or care. Plus it could be very profitable once cellulosic ethanol becomes commercially viable. Researchers at the University of Nebraska have found that even on marginal land, ordinary switchgrass yielded an average of 300 gallons of ethanol per acre, just 50 gallons less than corn. That yield would probably go up with new cultivars developed specifically for biofuel.

But a pesky question persists: How much of a subsidy would farmers need to switch to switchgrass, and who would pay?

A three-year, $112,536 grant by The Nature Conservancy from funds donated specifically for floodplain restoration by Conservancy trustee Brenda Shapiro may help Secchi find out. Secchi’s project will build on successful new approaches to flood management taken by the Conservancy and the Army Corps of Engineers in the Spunky Bottoms and Emiquon preserves in Conservancy-owned levee districts located along the Illinois River. These efforts emphasize keeping the land in private ownership, making them economically viable, while at the same time aiding the environment and benefiting society.

The Conservancy grant will allow Secchi and emeritus colleague Steven E. Kraft to look at the costs and benefits of changing from row crops to biomass production in some Upper Mississippi River Basin levee districts the Conservancy has identified as having ecological importance.

“These districts also will be near areas that have flooded, have few building sites, few current owners and will be large enough to affect flood height,” Secchi says.

The researchers will draw on U.S. Department of Agriculture data on crop rotations, management practices, soil features, field boundaries, production and transportation costs and market prices to detail current conditions. Combining that information with data on biomass yield potential and field environmental conditions will let them get a feel for how much farmers would make from the different crops both when they had dry fields and when the floods came.

“By comparing expected profits under the various scenarios, we will be able to estimate the minimum amount of subsidies necessary to convert land uses,” Secchi says.

“Farmers make economic decisions based on prices, net returns and techniques they know. If we don’t compensate farmers for growing switchgrass, it may make more economic sense for them to grow grain.”

In addition, Secchi and graduate student Mohamed Esmail are trying to nail down how much floods cost upstream and down, both in the immediate aftermath -- physical damage and repair -- and over time through shuttered businesses, lower property values, higher insurance premiums, loss of tax revenue, psychological trauma and ecosystem damage.

This information could suggest ways to devise market-based approaches to land-use management that could keep the land in private hands while achieving environmental benefits. It could also help determine possible sources of cash for the subsidies. It might be that government or financial institutions that now shoulder the costs related to floods could pay a portion of the money saved by averting floods to farmers in districts where levees were removed. Because switchgrass doesn’t need farm chemicals, perhaps downstream areas that siphon drinking water from the Mississippi could direct some of their payments for water purification to switchgrass growers. As switchgrass also helps soil retain more carbon, farmers who grow it might get some income from the emerging carbon credit markets.

But would farmers make the switch?

“They’ve grown corn for many years -- they have never grown switchgrass,” Secchi points out. “It’s not an annual crop; there’s a different production cycle.

“You can’t just put that risk on farmers’ shoulders and expect them to switch because you think it’s better for the planet. As an economist, I believe in the power of rewards. If you want to convince them that something else is better, you put cash on the table.”