Trouble on the Cache Revisited

November 20, 2006--Posted at 5:59 p.m. CST

CACHE RIVER, AR--For years, fast, heavy rains have caused the Cache River near Grubbs to flood and the impact on farming in the region has been devastating. But, the cost to county governments can also be high, as roads and bridges are frequently damaged by flood waters.

It's a problem that has been around for a long time, but hopefully things will be changing....eventually.

Farmers in Craighead and Jackson County have dealt with flooding problems along the Cache River for decades.

"Something like 30 years ago it started overflowing and every year since then we have had a problem with it," said Lavern Long, who farms along the river.

84-year-old Lavern Long farms soybeans and rice along the Cache and when it rains more than a couple of inches, it is devastating to his crops.

Long consistently loses at least $30,000 a year in crops because of the floods, but this year it's worse.

"Right now looks like about $100,000 worth this year of beans here," said Long.

The water in the Cache backs up and floods because of a natural dam, located just south of Grubbs, made up of trees, deadfall and other debris that drifts down the river. It's a problem that is multiplying as more debris flows downstream.

"I don't have no idea why it isn't fixed. They accumulate a million dollars then they study on it. I could tell them in two minutes what they need to do. They need to clean that drift out down there. That wouldn't solve it completely but it would help," said Long.

However, according to the Army's Corps of Engineers, fixing the problem isn't as simple as cleaning out the drift.

"To have a sustainable project, where we don't have to spend unusual amounts on maintenance, we need to address the sediment and erosion as well," said Larry Sharpe of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Cache is broader north of Grubbs and as it narrows the river becomes more susceptible to forming large drifts that flood out its banks.

"You got a clear path for this water to get down to Grubbs fairly rapidly, then it has to slow down and you have sediment dropping out from the erosion upstream. You have log jams that form from that," said Sharpe.

In addition to cleaning out the channel and the drift around Grubbs, the Corps of Engineers believes it is equally important to fix the sediment problem upstream.

"We are looking at probably doing measures for erosion control probably from there all the way to the Missouri line," said Sharpe.

Although the problem is identified, it's unclear when work will begin.

"It's difficult to give you a time line at this point," said Sharpe.

Farmers continue to wonder when they will finally see relief from the Cache's yearly floods.

"It's part of our mission, but as far as priority I would say it ranks with any other project in our area," said Sharpe.

Planning is just part of the solution. With a project of this size funding is another key issue.

"We looked at a solution, just for the Grubbs area that didn't address the erosion problem, back in the mid 90's, if I recall that was in the two to three million dollar range," said Sharpe.

The burden of funding isn't solely on the Corps of Engineers. The state of Arkansas and local government agencies are on the hook for 25% of the cost for construction and responsible for 100% of the future maintenance on any proposed solution.

"Given the fact that the problem has been around for not just a few years, but generations I am very hopeful we will get the help we need," said Arkansas State Senator Paul Bookout.

Recent changes to the state's political landscape are favorable to get the project the funding it needs.

"With newly elected Beebe being from this area, I think he will be very open to the problem and the state being involved," said Bookout.

Bookout believes that fixing this problem should prove to be an excellent investment by the state.

"Agriculture is the backbone of our state and I think it is just paramount that we do something about this problem. I think we will get our money back ten fold as far as that goes," said Bookout.

While no physical work has begun on fixing the problem the Corp of Engineers is quick to remind plenty of work is going on behind the scenes.

"There is quite a lot of thinking studying analyzing and planning that are underway not only with the Corps of Engineer, but other agencies involved," said Paul Hamm of the Army Corps of Engineers.

With nothing on the immediate horizon, the Corps still hopes to have the problem addressed in the next decade.

"The comprehensive basin plan will probably go to 2011 or 2012," said Hamm.

For farmers like Lavern Long who have dealt with the flooding for more than 30 years that's good news, but he isn't holding his breath.

"It would sound good, but at one time they said it would be done by 1997," said Long.

There is another potential hold-up on the Cache River project. In order for the Corps of Engineers to begin work they must have funding from the federal government and currently the budget for those programs is still awaiting approval.