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Missouri River takes farmland, as nation watches fires, storms

September 6, 2011 |  6:20 pm

Missouri River floodingIt’s been a tough summer for Middle America, which has been raked by a devil’s parade of tornadoes, droughts and wildfires that have only made hard times harder.

But amid all of these is a multibillion-dollar disaster it seems no one's talking about — a massive flood engorging the Missouri River Valley that began in June, stretched through more than a half-dozen states and may last until October.

Hundreds of thousands of acres have been flooded or damaged, including some of the nation’s best farmland along the river’s floodplains in northwestern Missouri, which were expected to yield gorgeous crops of corn and soy before the waters came. Iowa faces tens of millions of dollars to repair I-29, one of the state’s main arteries for interstate traffic. Damage to levees and dams could reach $1 billion.

And as river levels slowly drop, residents across multiple Midwestern states now find themselves competing for relief funds from an increasingly strained and tight-fisted federal government that’s staring down a record number of billion-dollar disasters this year.

“I just hope that, when the river goes down enough, we can repair levees and start getting back to where we were,” Blake Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, told The Times. “But it’s going to take a lot of effort from the state and federal governments, and it’s going to take a lot more money.”

The disaster has resurrected a unique political debate extending far beyond financial relief, as the Missouri River flood has the odd distinction of being the rare natural catastrophe that’s also guided by a human hand.

Nature brought massive spring rains and snowmelt to Montana and the Dakotas, which geography and gravity normally would have sent rocketing immediately downriver toward Omaha, Kansas City and St. Louis. But the waters were held back by a series of dams and the federal policies that govern them.

This summer, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tried to delay the floodwaters upstream for as long as possible to let it trickle out slowly. To do so, the Army Corps relied on a “master manual” of rules that it interprets with Talmudic scrupulousness to determine where water gets released downriver and when.

Those rules serve farmers, tourism officials, river boaters and environmentalists -- whose interests in the river often diverge dramatically.

For example, residents upstream like the revenues from fishing and boating in fuller reservoirs, but that doesn’t sit well with the farmers downstream whose lands were flooded. Many blamed the Army Corps for not releasing water from its reservoirs earlier in the year to leave more space for storing floodwaters. That in turn forced record dam releases after those reservoirs were overwhelmed by a year’s worth of rain over the last half of May.

The Army Corps has downplayed this argument, saying that there was little it could do in the face of such extreme rainfall, but some elected officials across the Midwest are already buzzing about a change in policy.

In an August summit, downriver Govs. Jay Nixon of Missouri and Sam Brownback of Kansas said that flood control should be the Army Corps’ highest priority on the Missouri River. But Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana skipped the meeting, telling the AP, “There wouldn't be much of a point in me attending,” saying that the meeting would be overly focused on downstream states’ interests.

A lack of comity could be problematic. As with the federal government’s ongoing inability to fix the broken National Flood Insurance Program -- leaving taxpayers on the hook for flood damage -- some residents along the Missouri River are worried that government inaction in addressing river management and repairing weakened levees could leave residents at greater risk than is necessary.

“There’s going to have to be more money appropriated to build more levees,” Blake said. “And that’s the main thing, to build more protection for next spring — or we’ll be doing this all over again.”


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-- Matt Pearce in Kansas City
Twitter: @mattdpearce

Photo: A car is submerged in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on Aug. 22. Council Bluffs, already struggling amid a summer of Missouri River flooding, was hit by heavy rain that flooded streets and overpowered the drainage system, leading to rescues, evacuations and damage to dozens of homes. Credit: The Daily Nonpareil / Jon Leu