An Ol’ Ditch Down Home; or, Another Assault on Our Environment

This ol’ hillbilly grew up (some–not all the way) down in southeast Missouri, just west of the Mississippi, south of the Benton Hills and east of Crowley’s Ridge. (You can look up Salcedo, Missouri, and Rootwad Township, if you’re interested.)

Back before the early 1900s, that area was largely wetlands. They called it “Swampeast Missouri.” But in the early part of the 1900s, land speculators encouraged the development of the Little River Drainage District (“LRDD”). The LRDD drained the Big Swamp, cutting wide, deep drainage ditches every mile. The drained land was logged and turned into farmland. Altogether, it was a greater effort than digging the Panama Canal. You can read a little bit about it herehere, here, and here.

The Little River Drainage District opened up more than a million acres to agriculture. But it was one of the great environmental assaults undertaken on our country. Swampeast Missouri had been home to cypress swamps, bear, deer, panthers. But the loss of the wetlands habitat meant the loss of plant and animal communities. (This document discusses some of these issues in greater detail.) When I was a young man, there were no deer, bear , or wildcats of any kind through most of the area.

The assault continues. When this ol’ hillbilly was still a boy and young man, you could take a boat down most of the ditches any time of the year. I used to catch a lot of fish out of the ditches: largemouth bass, bluegill, perch, crappie, grass pike, bowfin–once even a striped bass. I never fished for catfish, but they were common in the ditches.

But when I visited back a couple of months ago,* I found the ditches almost dry. Folks have been taking water out of the land–not only by draining it, but also by pumping it out to irrigate croplands. And more area farmers are growing rice–a practice that involves flooding rice fields, allowing water to evaporate into the humid air. Water tables are falling. When I was young, our well was a sunk whopping thirteen feet. Now everyone is driving their wells deeper and deeper as the aquifer shrinks.

I took this photo of one of the area ditches when I visited in early September. Back in the late 1970s, this ditch would’ve had plenty of water in it, even in September. But when I saw it, it was almost dry.

A couple weeks ago, I happened to open an app on my phone and applied a filter to the photo. I sort of like the looks of it. It reminds me of old times back home.

Except that there ain’t hardly no water in that damned ditch.

Ditch Down Home

* That is, early September 2017.

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