Many Midwestern states have been inundated with flooding since the middle of March. Warm temperatures brought rain and melted heavy snow pack. All of the water just couldn’t be absorbed into frozen ground, and it was more than the infrastructure could handle. Levies breached, waterways bulged, and flooding was widespread.
Over the years, changes in climate have led to seasonal weather extremes. This intense flooding will continue to happen, and lawmakers need to determine what can be done about it. Only now are states acknowledging the problem. The governors of Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska have committed to working together to address regional solutions to levee repairs and improve flood management.
Heavy Flood Damage
The Missouri river has tributaries that wind throughout the Midwest Plains. March flooding was especially devastating there. Iowa’s losses are estimated to be $2 billion, Nebraska’s losses are over $1 billion. Heavy losses to livestock, crops, infrastructure, buildings, homes, and farm machinery will lead to significant cleanup and recovery costs. And the water hasn’t even fully subsided yet.
As rural residents watched their lands wash out, lawmakers came together to figure out what to do. They’ve begun to address the funding and policies in place to deal with this disaster.
Field Hearing April 17
Ken Anderson of Brownfield Ag News reported on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee field hearing in Glenwood, Iowa on April 17. Iowa Senator Joni Ernst presided over the hearing. Additional committee members included Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, Kansas Senator Jerry Moran and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president.
The hearing was an opportunity for Senators and stakeholders to express their concerns on the Corps’ management of the Missouri River basin flooding.
Joseph L. Murphy, Senior Communications Manager of the Iowa Soybean Association also reported on the field hearing. Parts of Southwest Iowa experienced extreme flooding this spring. Ernst, who hosted the meeting, made several comments.
“I want to emphasize that the Missouri [flooding] is not just in the past tense,” Ernst said. “This is an ongoing disaster. People are hurting, flood waters are still in homes and neighborhoods and lives have yet to be rebuilt.”
“Having your farmland, homes and businesses flooded out every few years cannot become a fact of life,” Ernst said. “This trend of flood and rebuild, flood and rebuild must end.”
Corps on Defense
Corps officials admit that there wasn’t much that could have been done about the flash floods that breached many Iowa levees. Major General Scott Spellmon, the Deputy Commanding General for Civil and Emergency Operations said their main focus was on public safety.
“The number one priority of the Corps in all of our operations and all our projects remains life and public safety,” he said. “The damage to the levees in the region is extensive. Many levees across the entire region from Council Bluffs to Kansas City overtopped during this flood.”
At least 32 levee systems were completely under water during the spring floods. As of last Wednesday there were 114 breaches on those levees. The Corps is now working to repair them.
Many have been questioning the Corps’ priorities for managing the Missouri River flow, even though the Corps claims that endangered species don’t currently influence reservoir operation. Iowa Senator Charles Grassley is one.
“For years I have worked with my downstream Missouri River colleagues to make flood control the number one priority of the Corps in its management of the river,” Iowa Republican Charles Grassley said during his opening statement. “Protection of life and personal property should take precedence over recreation and experiments that may or may not help endangered species and the other six functions identified in the Master Manual.”
Recent changes to the Corps’ management of the Missouri River has led to some of the worst flooding ever recorded.
“It seems to me that misguided decisions and misplaced priorities have eclipsed common sense,” Grassley said. “A little more Midwestern common sense might have protected local communities, millions of bushels of grain, and tens of thousands of acres of farmland.”
In 2004 the Corps changed river management protocols. Some contend that those changes have led to more frequent and severe floods along the Missouri River. The program, called the Missouri River Recovery Program (MRRP) changed the volume and timing of the flow releases. Some say this benefits the Missouri River basin ecosystem, but doesn’t do much for flood control.
Grassley published his opening statement for the meeting on his website. He laid out a series of points. First, he shared disappointment in the Corps’ level of communication with the public. He went as far as saying they were “unresponsive” and believes that additional measures of communication are necessary. Second, he believes that flood control should be the first priority of the Corps. Protection of life and personal property should take prescience over experimental endangered species management.
He went on to point out the unfavorable ruling against the Corps in the mass action lawsuit of 372 plaintiffs from Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, and Kansas that the Corps’ changes to the river “had the effect of raising the Missouri River surface elevations in periods of high flows.”
The number one priority of the Corps should be flood control. Period.
DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton says that even if Congress appropriated funds for levee repairs in the Midwest, it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s where those funds will go. Clayton’s article was published on AgFax. The Corps and the White House use cost-benefit analysis to decide which levees to rebuild first- and that might mean they repair levees where property values are higher.
The Corps maintained at the hearing that there was little that could have been done to prevent the extreme flooding. The sheer volume of water in the rivers just overwhelmed the levee system. Six upstream dams on the Missouri River couldn’t have prevented the downstream flooding on the Platte River.
Major General Scott Spellmon said,
“Even if flood control were the only authorized purpose for these six projects (dams) and they were all empty, this event still would have occurred.”
He cited the meteorological event, dubbed a “bomb cyclone,” that put water on top of snow — on top of frozen ground — which quickly went into tributaries, “and frankly just overwhelmed the design capacity of the levee system below the federal projects (dams).”
Spellmon said it’s time to revisit the 97 recommendations made after the 1993 flooding on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. However, most of those recommendations required changes in the law that were ignored because they reduced development in flood plains. The Senators say they want higher levees, but Spellmon pointed out that the Corps’ has a $98 billion backlog of unfunded projects- a third of which are flood control measures.
Mistakes Have Been Made
But a lot of flood management going on right now just doesn’t make sense. Take the town of Hamburg, Iowa for example. Right now, 30% of homes and 90% of businesses there are under water. A 13-foot emergency levee from 2011 that used to be there had to be taken down because it didn’t meet Corps’ standards. But in order to build one up to Corps’ standards, the town needed to come up with $5.6 million. That didn’t happen, and now there’s little of Hamburg, Iowa left.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and also a 2020 presidential candidate was also challenging to the Corps flood prevention measures.
“They are too slow, too bureaucratic and they don’t have enough money.”
The four Senators were in agreement that an emergency appropriations bill needed to be passed that could increase the aid for several recent natural disasters. Different House and Senate versions of that bill remain tied up in the Senate.
Farmers recognize that climate changes over the years have brought seasonal changes and extreme weather. Intense flooding will continue to happen, and states need to figure out what can be done about it. The problem is only now truly being acknowledged.