For several weeks after a historic flood swamped the Bald Knob National Wildlife Refuge in north–central Arkansas in May 2011, refuge manager Bill Alexander and his one–man maintenance crew needed a boat to get around.


“It was just like an ocean out here,” Alexander said.


Snowmelt from an above-average snowfall, coupled with torrential spring rains, resulted in massive floods across the Mississippi River Valley. Dozens of national wildlife refuges were affected, including 27 in Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee.


Bald Knob Refuge was inundated after the protection levee surrounding the refuge was overtopped as the White River rose over 15 feet above flood stage. The only previous flooding of this magnitude on record occurred in 1927 and 1945.


Flooding is a way of life in the Mississippi River Basin, despite levees and channels built to control the river. May 2011 was exceptional, but not unprecedented. And while floods are devastating at first, the long–term effects can be beneficial. Floods recharge wetlands, restock oxbow lakes and provide new habitat for fish and other aquatic species. Silt–laden and nutrient–rich floodwaters have historically built up soils on farmland and wetlands throughout the delta as these sediments are deposited.


Waterfowl were minimally affected, Alexander said. The refuge, established in 1993 for migrating waterfowl like northern pintails and mallards, provides a winter home for half a million birds. By the time the flood occurred, waterfowl had flown north. The flood prevented a normal planting season, but fortunately it receded by the end of June to allow for some crop and moist–soil production, which provided supplemental food resources for waterfowl that winter.


In the days after the flood, as Alexander traversed his refuge by boat, he found drowned deer, rabbits, armadillos, coyotes and other dead animals. Interestingly, by mid–June, fish began dying, apparently from low dissolved oxygen caused by decaying vegetation.


“It took a toll, but wildlife is resilient,” Alexander said. “We’re at the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, and a lot of the animals were able to flee to higher ground.”


That fall, when refuge workers conducted deer counts, the numbers were significantly higher than pre–flood. Night counts ballooned from 30 to 40 deer on a good night, to as high as 87, he said. The “why” is still a mystery, but could be attributable to increased visibility as grass, weeds and reforested areas were still recovering from the recent flood. Rabbits also appear to have responded positively.


Property damage included a 1,500–square–foot house used to temporarily house interns and employees and a refurbished Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailer that had been used as the refuge office since 1998. Luckily, the floodwater stopped within one inch of the subfloor of the new American Recovery and Reinvestment Act–funded visitor station.


Alexander estimates the loss of facilities and equipment, including pumping stations, was about $500,000. The refuge’s co–op farmer suffered significant losses because of the flood. He had approximately 150,000 bushels of rice stored in the refuge granary, which was severely damaged. He was responsible for repairs to the granary, which included replacing motors, augurs and floors.


“People have been trying to tame these rivers for years, and it just can’t be done,” Alexander said. “It’s all bad if you look at it from man’s point of view, because we put dollar values on everything. From nature’s point of view, a high flood every now and again is beneficial.”


Stacy Shelton is a public affairs specialist in the Southeast Region office in Atlanta.