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Soil Conservation versus Levee Repair

February 20, 1998
By: Heather Hill
MDN Columbia Bureau

West Alton was a thriving farm community located on the banks where the Mississippi and Missouri rivers meet. Today its population has dwindled to about five-hundred...half of what it was before the floods of '93.

Elizabeth and Gary Machens own farm land in West Alton. Elizabeth is a city councilwoman and Gary is a fourth- generation farmer. They live near the rivers despite the constant threat of flooding.

She says, "You can't just let the land lay dormant . . .we have some of the best farm land in the state of Missouri."

State Senator Steve Ehlman has proposed a bill to limit floodplain development. But he doesn't want to put farmers off their land.

The St. Charles Republican first proposed the bill five years ago. Soil conservation is at the root of the opposition.

Senator Ehlman says, "It's just a jurisdictional thing."

Merle Doughty, a farmer in northern Missouri, says that the bill will take money away from efforts to prevent soil erosion. In the early 1980's, Missouri voters passed a one-tenth of one percent sales tax to fund state parks and soil conservation.

Doughty says, "What they want is to take some of the money that goes to soil conservation and use it for matching funds to fix levees."

Senator Ehlman says that the state has taken money from soil conservation before. In the mid-80's the government needed money to repair levees after a flood. They took the money from the sales tax revenues normally used for soil conservation.

Elizabeth Brown is the chairwoman of the state Soil and Water Conservation Commission. She doesn't think the government should be able to take the money when it wants to.

She says, "The one time exception gives them the idea that they can have it again."

Senator Ehlman believes using the sales tax money is justified because levees are connected to soil and water. He sees the problem as an argument between two farming districts.

Brown doesn't agree. She says the voters passed a tax to fund state parks and soil conservation. Not to build levees.

She says, "We promised the voters we were going to control soil erosion. [The bill] is a direct conflict to our mission."

The soil loss that Brown and Doughty want to prevent is not only a problem in Missouri. Doug Kleine is the executive vice-president of the Soil and Water Conservation Society. He says that nationwide, farmers lost two-point-one billion tons of topsoil in 1992.

Kleine says that soil erosion causes problems for everyone, not just farmers. Farmers have to add fertilizers to land that has lost its topsoil. These fertilizers pollute waterways.

Rivers are also polluted by the topsoil itself. The dirt settles at the bottom of rivers, which makes them unnavigable and increases the chances for floods.

Farmers in Missouri have taken steps to curb soil erosion, but Doughty says there is still a problem.

He says, "We've made progress and now people think we have it fixed . . .we still have a problem to address."

There was a committee hearing for the bill on February third. There were no witnesses for the bill and six witnesses against it.