Change Needed Along Big Muddy

Missouri River Governors Demand More Say in River Management

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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From left to right, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts hold a press conference Wednesday afternoon following a meeting on the current status of the Missouri River with staff from the Army Corps of Engineers in Council Bluffs, Iowa. (DTN photo by Chris Clayton)

OMAHA (DTN) -- Something has to change about the Corps of Engineers' management of the Missouri River, three governors said Wednesday, though the governors acknowledged they don't know exactly what that change will look like.

After meeting with Corps' officials about levee repairs and the recovery phase from ongoing flooding, the governors of Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska all said their states have to take more ownership over how the dams and levees are managed along the rivers. They relayed that message to the Corps, said Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds.

"This is something that impacts each one of our states collectively and we can't continue to experience the type of floods we've gone through here in the last recent days," Reynolds said.

All three governors are dealing with another round of historic flooding after a freak storm rapidly melted ice and snow across Nebraska, South Dakota and Iowa, flooding larger tributaries and forcing the Corps of Engineers to quickly raise the volume of water releases from Gavins Point Dam on the Missouri River. Communities and farmers along the Missouri River are reeling because many of them suffered similar flooding in 2011.

"We have to do something different along the river," said Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts. "It's not acceptable for us to continue to experience these types of flooding episodes."

Ricketts said the governors asked the Corps of Engineers about options to change management, up to the point of asking Congress to change laws to focus more resources on flood prevention.

Nebraska and Iowa are each looking at more than $1 billion to $1.5 billion in economic damage, roughly, with communities flooded, extensive crop and livestock losses, as well as roads and bridges that could take years to fully rebuild. Missouri farmers haven't tallied damages, but parts of northwest Missouri are still underwater. Farmers in all three states are facing millions of dollars in losses in grain bins that could be uncompensated without a disaster package. And a significant number of those farmers won't be able to get a crop in the ground this year.

"This is something where we think, as states, we need to be more actively involved with how we are managing the Missouri River to avoid this sort of flooding going forward in the future," Ricketts said.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson said there have been meetings with the Corps "for far too long" that end with the same result. "It's time we need some straight-up answers from the Corps of Engineers about how they are managing the river and why we continue to have these situations and getting worse," Parson said.

Parson said the economics of all three states "are totally dependent on the management" of the river. The governors noted Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly wanted to attend Wednesday's meeting in Council Bluffs, but had travel issues.

Short term, Reynolds said, there are four major levee breaks that are still getting inflows of water from the Missouri River, and those levees need to be plugged. Another 50 levees are damaged along the river as well.

Parson later added, "We're still not out of the woods yet. We've still got water coming out, ice and snow melt coming out of the Dakotas, plus spring rains that can really affect us."

Ricketts said a particular law, PL-84-99, requires the Corps of Engineers to restore levees back to original authorization, but not higher or wider. With changing conditions on the river, maybe the law needs to be changed to allow larger levees, he said. Ricketts also said permitting to build levees can take years to complete as well. Permit approval needs to be faster, he said. Ricketts also suggested, with infrastructure changes, that could require more land buyouts as well.

Reynolds said temporary levees built for protection from this flood also need to be factored into the permanent levee process going forward. In Hamburg, Iowa, the Corps required local officials to take down a temporary levee in 2011 that would have provided better protection for the community this time, but Hamburg was quickly overtaken last month by floodwaters.

Corps officials talked with the governors about the releases from Gavins Point Dam, which reached 100,000 cubic feet per second at one point. Currently, Gavins Point releases are at about 39,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). Corps officials said Wednesday releases are forecast to increase to 55,000 cfs early next week.

Ricketts noted Gavins Point wasn't meant to be a major flood-protection dam.

"Gavins Point is not designed to have much storage capacity, in general," Ricketts noted. A lot of the flow going into the Missouri River was below the dam, including from the Platte River, which was hitting 10 times its normal flows. Most of the major levee breaches on the Missouri River came below where the Platte flows into the Missouri. "So there was a lot coming into the Missouri from the Platte and other tributaries that was uncontrolled," Ricketts said.

Other permitted levee changes, though, might have avoided flooding such as at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, which suffered hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. Building higher levees, though, has a ripple effect of its own of pressuring other communities. Higher levees downstream, for instance, would translate into more flooding in major cities such as Omaha and Council Bluffs.

"That's why we are here," Reynolds said. "We can't build higher on the Iowa side and dump it on Peter (Ricketts in Nebraska) or Mike (Parson in Missouri). That's why the three of us are here and committed to taking a look at this from a regional perspective."

Looking at the state level, Parson said there are questions whether there can be more reservoirs on the Missouri River or tributaries to handle heavy water flows, as well as more levees.

While the governors acknowledged they were hit with "a perfect storm," as Reynolds called it, Parson said he thinks part of the problem was the Corps changed river management strategies in 2004 and no longer focused on flood control.

"I think the states are going to have to take more of a role in the management of the river, and the Corps is going to have to work with us from a different perspective from what we've done in the past," Parson said. He later added, "I think we just kind of have to get back to basics on managing the rivers, and we should have a say in that management part of that."

Along with that, the governors added that the federal government will have to come in with a disaster package to help the states recover. They called on Congress to pass its disaster package, which got hung up in the Senate earlier this week.

Chris Clayton can be reached at

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Chris Clayton