Senators urge changes to reduce Missouri River flooding

Flooding along the Missouri River in rural Iowa, Photo Date: 3/18/2019 / Source: Iowa Homeland...
Flooding along the Missouri River in rural Iowa, Photo Date: 3/18/2019 / Source: Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management
Published: Mar. 5, 2020 at 5:40 PM CST
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Republican senators from four states that have seen severe flooding from the Missouri River are backing legislation that would require the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to change its management of the river to reduce flooding risk.

The measure, which was introduced Thursday, follows criticism from residents of flooded areas that the Corps should give flood protection a higher priority than environmental, recreational and other needs.

The proposal would require the Corps to take steps to reduce flooding risks along the lower Missouri River by changing the way it manages the dams and strengthening levees along the river. The proposal is backed by all the senators from Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri.

“After the historic flooding we saw over last spring and in previous years, it is clear that we need to fundamentally change the way the Missouri River is managed,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. “Farmers, families, and local officials I’ve talked to are rightly concerned with the lack of progress that has been made in repairing damaged infrastructure and putting stronger protections in place for the future.”

Flooding caused more than $3 billion in damage along the lower Missouri River last year as releases from dams upstream combined with heavy runoff from rain and melting snow to damage levees and inundate land along the river. Prolonged flooding also caused significant damage along the river in 2011.

“As evidenced by the recurring flooding in the lower basin, the current approach is not working. At the federal level, we need to work toward a long term solution to our region’s flood control challenges,” Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst said

The Missouri is the longest river in North America, running from Montana through the Dakotas and touching Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas before cutting across Missouri and entering the Mississippi River at St. Louis. The Corps manages the river’s flow using six dams and reservoirs in Montana and the Dakotas.

Corps officials say flood protection remains their highest priority, but there are limits to what they can do to reduce flooding along the Missouri, especially along the lower river below the dams.

“We are aware people in the Missouri River Basin continue to be seriously impacted from flooding that occurred March through September 2019. We have worked hard to minimize damages caused. We’re doing all we can to reduce the impacts of the historic floods,” said Corps spokesman Mike Glasch.

The Corps said it is already working with Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri to develop a study of flooding risk management along the river, but that study hasn’t been funded yet.

Robert Criss, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis who has been studying flooding for more than two decades, said the problem is that the Missouri has been made narrower over the years and the Corps has worked to maintain a defined channel for barge traffic even though few barges ever cross the river.

“The whole problem with flooding on the river is it has been narrowed too much for barge traffic,” Criss said.

The Missouri 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 channel forces the floodwater into a narrow channel restricted by levees that speeds up the flow and increases damage.

Criss said that asking the Corps to do more to try and control the river isn’t the answer.

“Empowering the guys that caused the problem is how you make problems persist,” Criss said.