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Saving the Good Earth: The Mississippi Valley Committee and Its Plan

by Harold L. Ickes

Secretary of the Interior and Public Works Administration

February 1934

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Closely related to erosion, to surface runoff, to forestry is flood control, the most dramatic problem of the Mississippi Valley. The flood menace is dramatized in the broken levees of the lower Mississippi, but the real flood is a thousand miles north, where the water runs off the fields of Illinois and Iowa. We have tried to "control" the flood waters of the Mississippi by having our Army engineers build the levees higher and still higher in the effort to restrain our wasted water. But the levees have reached their limit as an engineering possibility.

Now we must attack the real problem of flood control. We must reverse our practice and prevent floods. This attack is necessary not only to safeguard the plantations and towns of the lower Mississippi, but to save wide areas from the blight of erosion and drought. There are water supplies on every farm, from the Canadian border to the Gulf, that have simply been poured into the Mississippi and its tributaries. These must be dammed and held where they are needed‹the streams that flow through ravines and coulees when the snow melts or when there is an unusually heavy rain, the ponds that collect in low places which we have emptied with "drainage ditches." We must go back and fill up a lot of these ditches that carry off both water and topsoil, and we have got to preach the gospel of using the water we have, particularly in low-rainfall areas, not making of it a flood menace for the Delta.

Like our handling of water and our treatment of topsoil, the distribution of farm-land in this country and the uses to which it is put show little evidence of "the American genius for organization." The homesteads and "land drawings" in the North Central states, the glamor and excitement of the "rush" for "locations" when the Cherokee Strip was thrown open, have been typical of our hit-or-miss agricultural development.

It is the policy of this administration not to allow a new piece of land to be brought under cultivation through reclamation without withdrawing an area of less desirable acres of equivalent productive capacity. It is with this policy in mind that irrigation and other reclamation projects are studied today. The shift is to be not a restless moving from old land to new, but a change from less desirable to more desirable farming-land.

Thousands of acres in the South and Midwest should clearly be put back to forests or otherwise taken out of farming use. Turning under every third crop row is a temporary expedient. Turning land equivalent to every other half-section back into woods would encourage better methods of agriculture, contribute to the upbuilding of the Valley and provide new employment opportunities in scientific forestry.

The time has come when we must take to heart the lessons of the wise and economical agriculturalists of Europe and of the older American civilizations. The careful Danes and Belgians, the French farmers who for seven hundred years, father to son, have tilled and genuinely improved their small farms, the Incas who so wisely treasure their meager water supply and spade back the topsoil that rain washes into the hedges‹these husbandmen are all more skilled than we in the great arts of agriculture. We must recognize erosion and drought as national perils, and the need to plan in terms of decades rather than months.

I remember talking with an expert who had been studying the gypsy moth. He showed me his charts and tables and described how, through the methods he and his associates had developed, the pest had been brought under control. True, there was a long, uphill fight ahead. The number of moths would continue to increase year by year for fifteen years, but the final extinction of the gypsy moth was assured. "We have the thing licked," he said triumphantly.

Similarly, facing the realities of the situation and accepting the long-term struggle, we have got to lick erosion. It is fortunate that we have as our national leader today a man who is fully alive to the problems of agriculture and forestry. I am firmly convinced that the backbone of the Republic will be broken before the century is out unless we formulate and put in motion such plans as he envisages for the wise upbuilding of the farm areas. President Roosevelt has given force and direction to all these efforts. He may well be honored by succeeding generations as "the man who saved the land."

The use of the water of the Mississippi Valley for navigation as well as for agricultural and domestic purposes is a part of the plan being shaped by the MVC. In a preliminary way, the committee using data supplied by the Army engineers to make a map showing the flow of the navigable streams of the area and the movement of local and long-distance river traffic. Inland navigation projects to date have been isolated, related neither to one another nor to any coordinating scheme.

The "Smith Report" on the railroads suggested the need for comparative data on dollars-and-cents cost of different means of transportation, and Joseph B. Eastman, federal railroad coordinator, is directing studies along this line. It must be remembered, however, that social as well as financial values are involved, and that the type of transportation facilities to be developed in a given locality cannot be determined by money outlay alone. Even so, some fair basis for computing costs is needed.

Another aspect of inland navigation that must be squarely faced is the day-dreaming of many communities situated on rivers we have termed navigable. On many small streams which thread the Mississippi watershed there are towns and cities that look forward to having foreign vessels tie up at their docks. Luncheon-club speakers continue to paint glowing pictures of the activity (and the profits) that will be enjoyed by local enterprises when French and English freighters load and unload at Smithtown or Jonesville. The persistence of such fantasy accounts in some measure for the unsavory pork-barrel character of many of our rivers and harbors appropirations in past years.

In fitting a scheme for river navigation into a vast plan for the Mississippi Valley, the committee recognizes not only the need for railroad and river data, but for facts on highway traffic. All transportation is affected by the coming of pneumatic-tired trucks, long-distance hauling over highways that can be lightly and hence quickly and cheaply built and maintained.

River Navigation


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003