This spring’s massive flooding along the Missouri River unearthed bitter criticism of the federal agency that manages the river while devastating communities and causing more than $3 billion in damage.
The flooding and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ actions will be the focus of a U.S. Senate hearing in western Iowa on Wednesday and critics will demand the agency make flood control its top priority. But Congress would have to act to change the Corps’ priorities.
“The current river management policy needs fixing, and recent flooding makes that more urgent than ever,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican.
That sentiment is appealing in Midwestern states that have endured flooding along rivers the Corps of Engineers is charged with managing, but it may not be as popular with supporters of the Corps’ other priorities such as protecting endangered species.
Congress ordered the Corps to treat all eight of its priorities equally, meaning flood control and prevention takes no precedence over protecting endangered species.
Corps officials say they work to balance all the priorities and maximize the benefit to several when possible.
The Corps has also said that much of the water that caused the flooding in March came from rain and melting snow that flowed into the Missouri River downstream of all the dams it controls. At the same time massive amounts of water was filling the reservoirs and some had to be released.
Mike Peluso, a longtime professional fisherman who runs an outdoors and guide service in North Dakota, said he doesn’t want to see management of the river “swayed one way or the other” for political reasons.
“They are more populated down south, I get that,” he said. “But it’s the same river regardless of whether or not you’ve got a million people or 100,000 people. It needs to be managed from the top down.”
He added, “I have a hard time believing with all the technology and brainpower we have we can’t find a balance there” between flood protection and other interests like recreation.
Greg Power, fisheries division chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, said he believes the Corps does “a pretty good job” of managing the Missouri River system.
“Flood control is still a high priority within the Corps, I know that,” Power said. “Some of these water years are pretty incredible themselves and I would hate to be a Corps person, to be honest.”
Rep. Sam Graves, whose district includes the northwestern Missouri area ravaged by flooding in March, introduced a bill this month that would remove fish and wildlife as an authorized management priority on the Missouri River and make flood control the highest priority. The bill would require revision of the Missouri River Master Manuel within 90 days of enactment.
“Time and again, we continue to see fish and birds take precedence over people and property when it comes to managing the Missouri River,” Graves, a Republican, said in a statement. “This latest round of flooding has devastated communities up and down the river. We already know that the management practices are contributing to it.”
After touring flood damage last month in northwestern Missouri, Sen. Roy Blunt said the Corps “should be prioritizing flood control, navigation, and drinking water.
“Environmental concerns are a part of that discussion, but the priority should always be on protecting people and property,” said Blunt, a Republican also from Missouri.
Lawmakers say residents are telling them the same thing. At a meeting last week with mid-Missouri farmers and levee district officials, Rep. Vicky Hartzler, another Missouri Republican, was told repeatedly that flood control needs to be the Corps’ top river priority.
Robert Criss, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis who has been studying flooding for more than two decades, said there may be a more important factor than how the Corps’ priorities are ranked.
The Missouri River has been made narrower over the years, Criss said, and the Corps has worked to maintain a defined channel for barge traffic even though few barges ever cross the river near Iowa and Nebraska.
“We’re having this problem because we messed with the rivers too much,” Criss said.
The Missouri River used to be a wide waterway with wetlands and numerous channels running alongside each other. That allowed floodwaters to spread out and cause fewer problems. Criss said the modern river forces the floodwater into a narrow channel restricted by levees that speeds up the flow and increases damage.
“The only way to make this river stop behaving so badly is to widen it out,” Criss said.