Missouri River Floods Debate

Lawmakers Seek Answers from Corps About Flood, Reassurance on Rebuilding

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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At a U.S. Senate hearing in Glenwood, Iowa, on Wednesday, Army Corps of Engineers Major General Scott Spellmon (left) and John Remus, chief of Missouri River Basin water management, both testified about how last month's floods occurred and what can be done to mitigate such flooding. Spellmon said little could have been done to stop the flooding downstream from Corps dams. (DTN photo by Chris Clayton)

GLENWOOD, Iowa (DTN) -- Congress appropriating funds for Midwest levee repair doesn't necessarily mean that's where the money would go if the Army Corps of Engineers and the White House use cost-benefit analysis to decide which levees to rebuild first.

That was one of the key takeaways for four U.S. senators who held a field hearing here on Wednesday for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on the current state of Missouri River flooding.

The flooding has caused an estimated $1.6 billion in damage in Iowa, which includes millions of dollars in grain that was stored from last harvest. Congressional funding would be required to provide an indemnity for the damaged grain.

Blake Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, representing the Coalition to Protect the Missouri River, said northwest Missouri has about 187,000 acres under water, none of which will be planted this spring. Crops lost just from unplanted acres will top well over $100 million, he said.

Despite the damage incurred in Nebraska from the flooding, there were no witnesses to highlight the destruction or rebuilding challenges there.


Major Gen. Scott Spellmon, deputy commanding general for the Army Corps of Engineers Civil and Emergency Operations, told senators the current flood topped 32 federal levee systems or put them completely underwater, as well as causing 114 other breaches in levees. Highlighting the magnitude of the destruction, he said even to plug just two levees near Hamburg, Iowa, will take 100,000 dump trucks of material.

Seeking to counter repeated complaints that other priorities dominate the Corps' management of the river, Spellmon emphasized, "The No. 1 priority of the Corps in its operations is life and public safety."

Spellmon pointed out there was little the Corps could do in and around March 13-17 to control the water flowing throughout Nebraska. The Niobrara River, for instance, normally runs at 4,000 cubic feet per second. At its peak, the Niobrara was sending 180,000 cfs straight into the Missouri River.

Spellmon also added that so much of the flooding occurred in unregulated rivers downstream from the Missouri River dams, such as the Platte River. The sheer volume of water in these rivers overwhelmed the levee system. The six upstream dams could not have prevented this, he 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," Spellmon said. 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)."


Given the response to this flood, Spellmon said it's time to revisit 97 recommendations made after the 1993 flooding on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. "We think it's time to revisit some of these recommendations that have been brought to the basin before," Spellmon said. He later added, "The solutions to reduce flood risks on the upper basin and the lower basin are not new."

Most of those recommendations required changes in law, and most of them were ignored, largely because they would reduce local development in flood plains.

While senators and others who testified called for higher levee protection and more levees, Spellmon also noted the Corps currently has a $98 billion backlog of unfunded projects, of which roughly one-third are flood-control projects.

Hamburg, Iowa, Mayor Cathy Crain testified about having to take down a 13-foot emergency levee after the flood of 2011 that saved her town. To make the levee permanent and up to Corps standards, the town would have needed to raise $5.6 million, which it could not do. Now, 30% of the town's homes and nearly 90% of businesses are underwater, which Crain said could have been avoided if the emergency levee had been there. Hamburg right now effectively has few local services.


"No restaurant, gas station, hair salon, barbershop, parts store, drug store, grain elevator, insurance office, bank, motel or farm implement dealership can open," Crain said. She added, "We must have a permanent levee solution."

Crain added there are people in her town living in cars, and they have had little or no contact with the Federal Emergency Management Agency about helping homes or businesses. She fears some families and businesses have permanently left town. "They have lost their businesses and their homes and they just need help," she said.

Also testifying was Leo Ettleman, a Fremont County, Iowa, farmer, who is one of hundreds of plaintiffs in a five-year court battle with the Corps of Engineers over the 2011 flooding. Ettleman said he thinks 2004 changes in how the Corps manages the river now have led to more flooding. Part of the 2004 manual includes the Missouri River Recovery Plan (MRRP), which is meant to help recover endangered fish and bird habitat on the river.

"I believe those changes in the MRRP have played a significant role in increasing the frequency of flooding," Ettleman said.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, who chaired the hearing, said afterward that Congress needs to spell out that flood control supersedes other functions for the Corps of Engineers. Despite the testimony, Ernst said she believes the Corps puts too much emphasis on environmental protections for endangered species over the lives and property of people.

"That really needs to be the No. 1 priority, and we need to give that guidance to the Corps of Engineers that it remains the No. 1 priority," Ernst said. "We need to make sure that flood control, flood-protection services remains the priority."

Sen Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said he understands the Corps may need $10 billion to repair the federal levees. "But that doesn't address the need for higher and bigger structures," Grassley said.


Grassley challenged Corps officials over management of the Missouri River, maintaining that the change in the Missouri River's master manual in 2004 started to spark an unprecedented time of floods in the river basin that had not occurred as frequently as before.

"What's wrong with the 2004 manual when 40 years before that we didn't have the troubles we've experienced lately?" Grassley said.

Grassley, too, said he took the comments of farmers and others who have been hurt by floods over the Corps' comments Wednesday.

While senators stressed river management changes to provide better flood control, when it comes to funding the Corps, the biggest concern now is reestablishing the levees that were there.

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., expressed concern about Corps testimony regarding flood protection. At other times, other priorities take place. "Everybody I've talked to said it's just their priority in advance of a flood," he said.


Senators also questioned the "cost-benefit ratio" that the White House Office of Management and Budget applies to the Corps for rebuilding levees. If funding is set aside for levee reconstruction, it could go to rebuild levees in other parts of the country where the property values are higher. This issue was highlighted by Corps officials during testimony.

"That's a terribly damaging circumstance," Moran said, quoting testimony, "that people have built their lives around that flood protection, the value of their land is determined by that flood protection, and if we don't repair the levees, these farmers and landowners no longer have a livelihood around the Missouri River."

Ernst reiterated that problem because Midwest property values are significantly lower than higher-value properties in the East or West Coast, she said.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a Democratic presidential candidate, said Congress needs "to get past the partisan politics that have come to dominate Washington, especially when it comes to funding for communities after disasters." Gillibrand also warned of future flooding events due to more extreme weather brought on by climate change.

"There will be a next time. There will be more extreme rainfalls. There will be more extreme weather. Climate change is taking extreme rare disasters and making them more common," Gillibrand said.

Gillibrand also challenged the Corps' reaction and preventive measures for floods. "They are too slow, too bureaucratic and they don't have enough money." Cuts take away the ability of the Corps for prevention and flood relief.

Each of the senators stressed the need to pass an emergency appropriations bill, which would boost aid for several disasters. Different House and Senate versions of that bill remain tied up in the Senate because of the new Midwest disaster and funding for Puerto Rico from a 2017 hurricane.

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

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Chris Clayton