Flooded farmland

By Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer June 08, 2011 08:35 pm

Forkans among local farmers feeling impact of high water

Ruckman Road family would like to see effort made to improve and strengthen levees meant to hold back floodwater

Just because you can’t find Forkan Lake on a map,  doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

Forkan Lake is a wonder of nature created overnight between Sunday and Monday, May 15-16, when the turgid, surging waters of the Grande Ronde River burst a levee three-quarters of a mile east of Dan and Roxanne Forkan’s farm on Ruckman Road.

For the Forkan family, it was an unforgettable night.

“It sounded like a waterfall. We were laying in bed and could hear the water rising,” Roxanne Forkan said.

Water rose and rose, flooding 250 acres of prime Forkan farm ground. It kept right on rising into the farmstead’s back yard, stopping just short of the house.

On the morning of May 16, Dan Forkan drove up nearby Mount  Harris to get a better look at the damage. Later in the day, he took a boat out into the lake.

He could see that floodwaters had punched a 50-foot hole in the dike behind his property, and a 100-foot hole in the dike along land owned by his neighbor Ralph Wilson.

From his Mount Harris vantage point, Forkan saw water, water everywhere.

“I know we’re not the only ones with problems. There’s thousands of acres under water in the valley,” he said.

And though the water seems to have stopped rising, and may even be receding a little, the lake, christened Forkan Lake by the rueful Forkan family, remains. Last week, the family was getting around the property in boats.

“This is the fourth time in a calendar year we’ve had high water,” Dan Forkan said. “It’s not uncommon, but when it starts going over the levee, that’s not the rule.”

The Grande Ronde Valley is still reeling from the mid-May floods caused by unrelenting rainfall, warming temperatures and fast-melting mountain snowpack.

On May 16 the Grande Ronde River rose to record levels and flooded its banks. Other streams, including Little Creek in Union and Wolf Creek in the North Powder area, spilled over as well.

In many areas, culverts became clogged with debris. The county sustained heavy residential, agricultural and road damage. The flood threat is not yet past and officials are still tallying damages.

Hit hardest in mid-May were the agricultural lowlands between Island City and Imbler. The Forkans are full-time, year-round farmers who raise wheat, grass hay, alfalfa and barley in that area. They’re resigned to the reality that this season is a bust, at least for the 250 acres east of their house.

They’ll have no crop there, except for some meadow grass they might be able to harvest late in the fall.

Working up an estimate in his head as he stood out in his yard last Wednesday, Dan Forkan said he figures crop losses at $75,000 and damages to the levee at $75,000. He does not have insurance to cover the disaster.

Though this isn’t the first flood the Forkans have seen since they moved to the farm in 1990, it is the worst.

They say they have made repairs to their levee year after year. Roxanne Forkan said it’s a drain on financial resources that’s ever-more-difficult to sustain.

“It’s hard to do a Band-Aid fix and then have it happen again,” she said.

The couple is heartened that the Union County Board of Commissioners declared a state of emergency, seeking state and federal help for farmers who sustained losses this year.

But something else they’d like to see is a concerted, sustained effort to improve and strengthen the levees that are meant to hold back rivers and streams in times of flood. They’d like to see state and local government unite with landowners and come up with a permanent fix.

Dan Forkan said that in addition to improving the dikes, the best course of action would include construction of reservoirs for both the Grande Ronde River and Catherine Creek drainages.

That would be expensive, perhaps prohibitively so. But after the long, wet spring of 2011, the Forkans are convinced that at the least, some dialogue is in order.

“We need to get some kind of group together to look at these levees and come up with a plan,” Dan Forkan said.