A year later

What effect did the severe flooding of 2019 have on farmers, farmland and irrigation systems?
BY TROY INGRAM, STEVE MELVIN & AARON NYGREN
In the flooding of 2019, floodwaters receded leaving farmland covered with sand, sediment and all kinds of other debris. Irrigation equipment that has been hit by floating debris should be closely inspected for damage.
Floodwaters receded leaving farmland covered with sand, sediment and all kinds of other debris. Irrigation equipment that has been hit by floating debris should be closely inspected for damage.

The weather events of early 2019 and their catastrophic impact bring back memories that many in the Midwest and South would rather forget. Triggered by a powerful March storm with heavy precipitation that intensified snow melt, widespread flooding and ice jams caused extensive damage and losses to infrastructure, land, livestock, buildings, businesses and personal property.


An estimated 14 million people across the Midwest and South were affected.


In the flooding of 2019, at this farm along the Loup River in Nebraska, the river channel moved into the field and will prevent the pivot in the background from making a full circle.
At this farm along the Loup River in Nebraska, the river channel moved into the field and will prevent the pivot in the background from making a full circle.

An estimated 14 million people across the Midwest and South were affected. By the end of June 2019, 11 states had sought federal disaster funds for more than 400 counties. Total damage and economic loss are difficult to quantify and have been estimated at $12.5 billion.

Unfortunately, many farmers and their operations were drastically impacted by the flooding. When we look back at the effect flooding had on irrigation systems and the land, a wide range of issues emerge. For some, impacts were short term and relatively easy to fix, while others will be dealing with issues for years to come. 

Impact on equipment & land

After the waters receded, one of the big takeaways was that there were not catastrophic impacts to most irrigation equipment. For instance, most systems were back up and running this past summer after maintenance was done on gearboxes, motors and electric panels. In some situations, growers elected to replace electric motors that had been wet to avoid potential problems down the road. Unfortunately, there were also cases where power units or other equipment were total losses from flood damage.


After the waters receded, one of the big take-aways was that there were not catastrophic impacts to most irrigation equipment. 


Some of the largest issues related to flooding were not problems with the irrigation systems themselves but effects on the land that the irrigation system originally covered. Thousands of acres of farm ground impacted by flooding are now either buried by sediment or simply gone due to erosion or the movement of the channel. Often when the channel moves, it also requires moving the pivot point, making the pivot shorter or only running the pivot a part circle. 

In other instances, dirt work was needed to get the system operating again or to fix smaller areas of the field. Fixing these issues requires large investments of time and money, and some fields will likely never be put back into crop production. 

Evaluating flooded equipment

In the flooding of 2019, in order for this pivot to move, it needs soil added to the holes caused by floodwaters. In addition, its center drive motors have been underwater and may need to be repaired or replaced.
In order for this pivot to move, it needs soil added to the holes caused by floodwaters. In addition, its center drive motors have been underwater and may need to be repaired or replaced.

Another big takeaway from last year is knowing what to do in the future when flooding affects irrigation equipment. First, remember that safety is critical, so make sure all electricity is shut off before evaluating the equipment. Next, determine how high the floodwater actually got by looking for a dirty water line, and then inspect all equipment that had water over it. The main components to check on center pivots are the wheel and center drive gearboxes, center drive motors on electric drive pivots, the pivot panel, and tower boxes if the water reached them. 

Hydraulic drive pivots will need the wheel gearboxes checked, but the hydraulic system should typically be all right unless the pump and/or oil reservoir were submerged. Also, inspect every component to make sure floating debris has not crashed against it causing damage to the structure or exposed wiring.

When looking at the components closer, the center drive motors should be dried and cleaned by removing the stator housing. Drain any water from the gearboxes and then top them off with oil. However, if the oil looks contaminated, the entire gearbox should be drained and refilled with new oil. Pivot panel and tower boxes should be inspected by a service technician or electrician and repaired or replaced as needed if water reached them.

Evaluation of the electric motor or internal combustion engine that powers the water pump needs to be very complete. An engine needs to be dried and cleaned as soon as possible to prevent rusting and may need to be completely rebuilt. An electric motor should also be removed and taken to the shop to be completely dried and cleaned and to have the bearings greased before running. Wells that had water over them should also be checked to make sure debris did not get down the column and jam the impellers.

The flooding of 2019 left farmers with disasters such as a burst silo on an Iowa farm (right) and flooded fields and homesteads (left).
The weather events of spring 2019 left farmers with disasters such as a burst silo on an Iowa farm (right) and flooded fields and homesteads (left).

Plan for future weather events

When it comes to weather, no one can accurately predict what will happen in the future. However, you can make plans to mitigate future flooding issues by implementing strategies that reduce potential damage. For instance, taking the time to move irrigation equipment out of the flood plain or parking the pivot as far away from the stream as possible and/or on a side hill (if there’s one in the field) could help protect irrigation equipment from flood damage.


You can make plans to mitigate future flooding issues by implementing strategies that reduce potential damage.


While this might make it more susceptible to wind damage, the distance should help keep equipment out of floodwaters. This practice isn’t unheard of, as many farmers who pump irrigation water out of a creek or river typically move irrigation equipment away from the water source when it’s not being used. Typically, farmers in those situations are likely more accustomed to watching for signs of a pending flood. The advantage of being proactive is that any type of equipment you can protect from potential floodwater will help avoid a nighttime trip to move it or deal with costly repairs or replacements caused by Mother Nature.  

Troy Ingram, Steve Melvin and Aaron Nygren are irrigated cropping systems extension educators for the University of Nebraska.

Other lessons learned from the 2019 flood 

Secure propane or diesel tanks located close to internal combustion engines to help keep them from floating away. 

Request a review of your insurance policies to see what is or isn’t covered from flooding. 

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