It’s been noted here before, and your own eyes will tell you, that the James River isn’t what it used to be.

Not these days, at least.

A story in Saturday’s Press & Dakotan discussed the flooding that has been experienced in the river, not only this year — twice — but all during the past few years.

“It’s a combination of things from farming practices to drainage to the increased rainfall we’ve had in the last year or two,” said Dave Bartel, project manager with the James River Water Development District. “It’s just really caused it to flood.”

But in fact, the change in the river goes back much further than that.

It could be argued that more frequent flooding, which was once a rare occurrence on the river, actually started sometime back in the 1990s. During the last two decades, bottomland in the James River valley has, more often than not, been plagued by flooding issues at some point during a year.

This has, over time, changed the character of the river physically. The river has been stretched wider now, and as Bartel noted, more siltation has caused the river to “belly out” and flood more often.

And it would indeed be fair to say that it’s been due to more than frequent rains.

General farming practices have changed in the past couple of decades. Due to better prices and rising land values, more land is being turned over to production, which in some cases has meant that land that had been unbroken pasture land was being converted to cropland.

“We’re farming more ground,” Bartel said. “There was a lot of ground 5-6 years ago that probably should’ve never been broken up. It helped slow the water down getting to the Jim.”

Water management has also changed. More farmers are moving water off their land, either through ditching or tiling, in order to put that land to more productive use. This is turning more water into runoff, which is sent, either directly or eventually, into the James River system.

It’s not unfair to say that one result of all this is that bottomland in the James River valley in Yankton County has become, if not useless, a very uncertain proposition when planning for the next planting season. Once, that was not true at all; now, it’s a fact of life.

What can be done to address this?

That is a massive question, and perhaps an impossible one to answer.

Obviously, we can’t make it stop raining, no more than we can really make it start raining to break a drought.

Also, coping with — or accommodating — water drainage practices that feed the river system would be a herculean task and, most likely,  the subject of appeals and even lawsuits.

One of the discussion points of climate change — which this issue may or may not be tied to — is to examine not so much why it has happened but to instead figure out what we are going to do about it in the future.

What practices can be deployed to deal with the new status quo on the James River? Would it involve creating more dams in its tributaries to slow the drainage of water? Damming the river itself probably wouldn’t be embraced, Bartel admitted.

Thus, the answers aren’t easy.

But perhaps working toward those solutions needs to be the focus. Otherwise, the river will be seen as something of a curse to anyone who wants to make a living on land in this once-valuable valley, a place now of mud and broken designs.


(1) comment


What has been said here is spot on. Back in the 1980s a group known as United Family Farmers tried to get folks along the River to do things that would have helped the River today but not much was done. Dave is right about agricultural practices that have doomed the River. Before farming the River rain cool and clear. But there are some farmers along the river that have embraced good agricultural practices that really could help such as stream bank areas left in their natural state to help slow flows into the River. Now if every landowner did this it would be a start. Next natural river training structures could be used to cut the channel so as to remove silt in the system. If farmers and ag engineers would all work together system wide solutions could be found for the future. But it would require all communities up and down the river to work together. People have to want it before it happens. Just think if 35 years ago it had been done what our flooding would have looked like this year. But alas whisky is for drinking and water is what we fight about.

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