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Outdoors Column | Les Winkeler: Levee break turns wetland to wasteland

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After a 45-year career in journalism, this may be the most difficult sentence I’ve ever written: “Sometimes words are insufficient.”

That lesson became painfully clear last week when I took two friends to tour the portion of Alexander County devastated by the Len Small Levee break of 2016.

I have written extensively about the flooding. I have run dozens of photographs of the devastation.

However, none of the flowery prose, none of the vivid descriptions, metaphors, analogies or photographs, reportedly worth 1,000 words each, prepared my friends for the scenes they witnessed.

When you use a word like moonscape, a mental image comes to mind. Wasteland has vivid connotations. The term “desert scene” carries visual clues.

I have used those terms hundreds of times in dozens or articles in the six years since the Len Small Levee was breached. I have tried to portray the immeasurable destructive power exerted by Mother Nature, power sufficient to deposit a pair of barges in what used to be corn and bean fields south of Horseshoe Lake.

Several times since 2016, I have written about currents ripping through the Horseshoe Lake area with such force that it peeled the oil and chip surface off roadbeds. I have described the scene of overturned trucks where the roiling flood waters augured away the roadbed, leaving a veneer of asphalt that collapsed under the weight of vehicles.

My friends assured me they had read the stories. They had seen the photographs.

But, they had not seen for themselves.

Their reaction: Stunned silence and shaking heads.

The amazing thing, what they witnessed last week was a sanitized version of the damage. Tons of sand deposited on the farmland by the raging river have been hauled away or bulldozed into piles that look like natural contours of the land.

The deep scars carved into fields by the flood waters are partially obscured by vegetation now. The grass and willows do a good job of camouflaging the true extent of the damage. I had to explain time and again that the ponds and lakes lining the Miller City Blacktop didn’t exist prior to 2016.

On the other hand, a couple of county roads have finally been repaired to the extent that you can now drive directly through the wasteland, rather than just skirt it. And, I must admit, although I have seen the damage both by land and boat, driving directly through the flooded areas was a revelation.

The breach in the Len Small Levee is massive, nearly three-quarters of a mile. The effect it continues to have on the region is profound. The levee used to protect the surrounding lowlands until the river stage reached 50 feet. Now, the area floods when the river reaches 33 feet – a 17 foot difference.

Think about that.

At this point, there are no plans for the levee to be repaired. The flooded area is repairing, or at least re-creating itself, reverting to the bottomland it probably always should have been.

Driving through the region, I close my eyes and see a future in which flocks of great egrets, great blue herons and cattle egrets feed in shallow lakes, surrounded by willows and grassy fields – a Southern Illinois version of the Everglades.

I would love to see the land under federal protection as a much needed wetland.

But, don’t take my word for it. Take a drive to Alexander County yourself. Take a long first-hand look. I can almost guarantee you’ll be surprised by what you see.

LES WINKELER is the outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at les@winkelerswingsandwildlife.com, on Twitter @LesWinkeler.

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