Kate and I visited my Mom and brother’s family in Conway, AR for a couple of days. We drove back through northeast Arkansas and Missouri’s Bootheel. The cotton harvest is in full swing there.
I worked for Missouri’s Department of Conservation Streams Unit for nearly six years, and knew much about the Bootheel’s ditches, but had no idea that, much like the Cache Valley in Illinois, the area was drained by a Manhattan Project-like effort beginning around 1907.
And I sure didn’t know that this huge project was run by the Little River Drainage District! An interesting history here. According to this source, the District drains 550,000 acres (860 square miles).
The broad, flat alluvial area west of the Lower Mississippi River running from the Ohio River Confluence down through eastern Arkansas is a vast agricultural area that produces, besides a lot of cotton, almost half the rice grown in the US. It’s generally known at the Arkansas Delta, though it’s not delta shaped in the usual sense, and narrows down near Monticello, where I went to High School. My first job, at 13, was on a delta rice farm there during the go-go early 1970’s when soybean and rice farmers were clearing every acre they could.
The white lines that look like topo lines on the aerials are in fact that–rice levees built along lines of equal elevation to flood the fields. My job was mostly to maintain these. In a typical day we would see a dozen snakes slithering through the flooded rice, and there was no way to see them until you were right on them, but they never bothered us.
You can also see center pivot irrigation circles on the aerials. I should mention there are very serious problems with groundwater withdrawal for rice production. USGS report here, with nice maps of the region.
The Little River Drainage District has built an incredible network of channels in Missouri’s bootheel, many of which empty into the massive, multi-channeled Ditch Number 1, which at places runs along the the former course of the Little River.
I have no idea why they built these multiple channels, though I’m guessing it was easier than enlarging the original one as more acres were brought into the system, kind of like adding lanes to a highway. Or perhaps a way to maintain a hydraulically stable channel.
I’ve driven through here many times, but always with many miles to go and not much thought about its history. Apparently the whole project was well-documented photographically, with the images here (not online). An interesting topic for more research. More info on the collection here; apparently SE Missouri State in Cape Girardeau has most of it.