Flooding from below

Farmers near Bonners Ferry dealing with rare seepage problem

GABE GREEN/Press Fields near the community of Copeland, Idaho, are now covered in water where there once was hundreds of acres of winter wheat, barley, and canola. Flooding is thought to have been caused by record rains in the month of June.

BONNERS FERRY - Way-above-average rainfall in June is going to cost farmers in the Kootenai River valley - located between Bonners Ferry and the U.S.-Canadian border - millions of dollars in lost crops, farmers said Friday.

"There are some farmers who have taken a hell of a hit," said Bob Olson, who farms 3,000 acres in the valley, including winter wheat, canola, chickpeas, blue grass and barley. Flooding and seepage has cost him approximately 50 acres of lost crops.

He said there's more to the story than high precipitation.

The seepage he has seen results from the water table being elevated by extended high flows in the Kootenai River, he said. Much of the farmland in the valley is protected from the river by levees.

Olson is critical of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' management of the reservoir behind Libby Dam, in Montana. He believes the federal agency is too preoccupied with flushing salmon and sturgeon downstream, and avoiding lawsuits by environmental protection groups, than ensuring farmers don't experience flooding in the Kootenai River valley.

He showed a reporter video he had taken from a crop duster on July 5 showing numerous areas where water was seeping up to the surface and flooding farm fields, including plenty that had already been seeded. Extended high flows with heavy rain combined to flood crops, he said.

Based on the video, he and another farmer estimated that 5,000 to 7,000 acres had been ruined. If it was 5,000 acres - mostly winter wheat - the loss in sales following harvest would be about $4 million, Olson estimated. The loss of money is much greater if farmers had already seeded fields in the fall, he said, which many of them had, not anticipating the flooding this year.

"Every one of the farmers in the valley has some problems," he said. "Some of them are worse than others."

There are roughly 15 farmers in the valley now, with about 30,000 acres.

"If some of them had crop insurance, they're probably going to be OK," he said. "Crop insurance is something we don't normally buy in this valley because you don't normally need it. For your winter wheat crops you have to be signed up in September. The only thing I insure for is fire."

Tim Dillin, who has been farming in the valley since 1982, on a farm 2 1/2 miles south of Porthill that has been in his family since 1924, said the flooding damage from seepage is the worst he has seen.

"This is the most water and this late in the year I've seen it out in the fields on our farm," Dillin said. "They've kept the river high a long time this spring, and then we've had just so much rain. It's a combination of the two."

He said he has had water seeping up in fields where he had never seen it before.

"There're some people down by (the community of) Copeland that got it a lot worse than we do," Dillin said.

He has 1,500 acres of farmland - with barley, canola, winter wheat and chickpeas - and he anticipates seeing yields on 120 acres lost or seriously reduced.

Craig Hubbard, a wheat and canola farmer in the valley, said he has been fortunate, with little damage from seepage. He farms 1,000 acres at the upper end of the valley and anticipates 40 acres of damage.

Still, he said, "This year has been so wet, that coming down off the hill, I've got places that are wet and ponds in areas that I haven't had for many, many years."

Hubbard has been farming in the valley for 40 years.

He said land his nephew farms in the valley has 40 acres that have been damaged.

Hubbard blames Mother Nature mostly, but he also cited extended high flows in the river for the damage.

The valley, bounded by steep mountains to the east and west, has great conditions for successful farming. Farmers benefit from the soil, altitude, latitude, temperature and annual precipitation. It has long been known for its hops farming, and connection to beer giant Anheuser-Busch Co.

The Kootenai River flows out of the reservoir behind Libby Dam, in western Montana. The flows travel downstream to Bonners Ferry and north through Boundary County to Canada, eventually dumping into Kootenay Lake.

Inflows into the reservoir behind Libby Dam were the highest recorded since the dam was built in the mid 1970s.

The winter was relatively dry through February, but there was a significant late winter building up of the snowpack, lasting through early spring.

"The real wildcard that we saw this year was the intense precipitation we saw through the month of June," said Army Corps water manager Kevin Shaffer, at the Army Corps' Seattle district office. Precipitation that month was up to five times the average.

Bonners Ferry had record rainfall in June, experiencing a 122-year rainfall event, he said. The old record was 3.96 inches, topped this year with 5.24 inches, Shaffer said. It was a challenging year for the Army Corps to do forecasting, he said, with the combination of late-season snow building and record June rainfall.

The lake level in Canada also has an effect on water levels in the Kootenai River, backing up to Bonners Ferry. Kootenay Lake was at its highest level since 1974, Shaffer said.

Seepage can occur in the Kootenai River valley even below flood stage, but it's still something the Army Corps works to minimize, he said.

The appropriate release of flows from Libby Dam is a difficult balancing act, he said. It becomes more difficult during unusual weather events.

"There's been some effective coordination between the U.S. and Canada during this event, too," Shaffer said. The record rainfall in Bonners Ferry hit British Columbia, too, affecting Kootenay Lake, he said.

GABE GREEN/Press Bob Olson, a farmer in the Kootenai River Valley, estimated that 5,000 to 7,000 acres of farmland has been damaged by water from seepage and flooding from the river.

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