Corps of Engineers faces tough question from Missouri landowners, government officials

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By Tim Sampson
Missouri News Horizon

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – As the Missouri River continues to recede after this year’s catastrophic floods, citizens all along the river basin have been flocking to public forums hosted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to voice their concerns about what the future holds.

At a Corps of Engineers meeting in Jefferson City Thursday night, more than a hundred locals came out to speak directly to Brig. Gen. John McMahon and other officials with the Northwestern Division of the Corps, which is responsible for flood control along the river. The Corps has faced an onslaught of criticism for decisions it made that led directly to the flood.

“It was a calculated decision,” McMahon said at the start of the meeting. “It wasn’t made arbitrarily. It was made, I believe, for all the right reasons.”

McMahon insisted that the Corps’ decision to hold back high levels of water in upstream reservoirs was made with the best long-term forecasting data available at the time. National Weather Service Maps from September 2010 through February of this year, failed to project a heightened likelihood of an above-average rain event along the Missouri River Basin that would have caused higher than normal water levels.

But that’s exactly what did happen, when heavy spring rains in the upper plains deluged the river and topped off reservoirs – leaving the Corps incapable of managing the annual mountain snow melt that occurred shortly thereafter. From May through July, the Missouri River basin above Sioux City, Iowa, saw a total of 34.3 million acre feet (MAF) of water run-off – an amount of greater than the total annual run-off for 102 of the past 113 years.

Despite these circumstances, many of the people in attendance questioned why the reservoirs were so elevated before the rains in the first place.

Most pointed a finger of blame at federal mandates for fish and wildlife preservation. They criticized the artificial “spring rise” the Corps coordinates every year to increase water levels in upstream fish habitats.

State Rep. Randy Asbury, R-Higbee, cited independent studies which he said offered proof that the elevated water levels were not needed to encourage fish spawning. He applauded the Corps decision to suspend next year’s spring rise, but Asbury called for its permanent elimination.

Speaking on behalf of Gov. Jay Nixon, Missouri Director of Natural Resources Sara Parker Pauley called for the Corps of Engineers to temporarily move money from wildlife restoration programs to flood management to help with the rebuilding of levees. Seventeen levees in the Kansas City and Omaha area were toppled by the flood this summer, with dozens more sustaining damage.

“Certainly you understand the frustration of our citizens who have been devastated by the flood waters, yet see a budget of millions of dollars for an eco-restoration and species restoration program,” Pauley said. “Those monies could help rebuild and restore lives”

But even if the Corps were to heed this suggestion, the internal budgeting move would not come close to covering the full cost of repairing the entire levee system. Engineers estimate repairing all the levees will cost anywhere between $500 million and $1 billion dollars.

McMahon said the Corps faces an uphill appropriations battle in Congress to secure all the funding, and said that many of the less damaged or low priority levees would not be finished by the end of winter. Even now, engineers are still conducting levee inspections as they wait for water flow to return to normal by the end of the year.

The question of how to rebuild the damaged flood management system touched off on a number of other concerns.

“In this area, it is possible to go in and put in temporary (levee) structures and those temporary structures should be going in place now,” said Jose Cruz, a farmer from Callaway County who serves on the local levee district board. “Not be in a situation where we’re waiting on funding to do the whole thing.”

Cruz was one of a number of local farmers in attendance. And like many of his cohorts, Cruz voiced concern that the Corps may try to pressure or force landowners to give up property in the flood plain as a cheaper alternative to rebuilding existing levees as they were.

“This year’s flood shouldn’t be viewed as an opportunity to acquire more land for flood plain restoration,” said Dan Cassidy, chief administration officer for the Missouri Farm Bureau. “Farmers aren’t looking for a reason to sell. They are hoping to have some help keeping their land in production. If nothing else, federal agencies shouldn’t stand in the way.”

Although he left the door open to the possibility of buying out property owners in the flood plain, McMahon said the federal power of eminent domain would not be used to force owners to sell. He said that the there was “no plan, no scheme, no conspiracy, not intent to take away landowner’s property rights.”