WASHINGTON — The Army Corps of Engineers is making progress plugging holes in the Missouri River levees that this year’s massive flooding turned into Swiss cheese.
The corps on Thursday closed the breach in levee 575A, which protects Percival, a repair slowed by rains in late May and debris in the river in mid-June.
Yet this week, the corps also expects to close the breach in L601 north of Bartlett, leaving only one of the four priority breaches in southwest Iowa yet to be closed.
This year’s flooding was so historic that without a levee system, the river could have cut a whole new channel for itself, Col. John Hudson, commander of the Omaha district, told The Omaha World-Herald.
“It’s been fighting to leave its existing channel, which we’ve had it in since the river was channelized back in the ’50s,” Hudson said.
Hudson was on Capitol Hill this week updating lawmakers about efforts to close breaches up and down the river.
Particularly challenging is work on L575B near Hamburg, which probably won’t be done for another five to six weeks.
None of the repairs will restore the levees to their previous height and strength. That will require more time and money.
Hudson said the congressional delegations from Nebraska and Iowa have been strong advocates for allocating needed resources for the corps to make repairs.
The corps is still working to produce exact figures on the long-term recovery cost.
The major Hamburg breach is in a levee separate from one closer to town that was originally intended to keep out drainage water but was temporarily built up to protect against the 2011 floods.
The local community had sought to keep that buildup but removed it after failing to raise enough money to upgrade it to federal standards.
Hudson described that temporary levee as essentially a pile of unreinforced dirt, meaning that it most likely would have done little in the 2019 flooding beyond provide a false sense of security to those in the area.
“It would have just washed out,” Hudson said.
Some lawmakers, particularly in Iowa, have pressed the corps on its approach to managing the river, suggesting that it needs to place greater emphasis on flood mitigation rather than accommodating environmentalists and boaters and anglers upriver.
Sen. Joni Ernst lauded corps officials this week for pledging to improve communication with local officials.
And Ernst said Hudson himself has been very responsive. But she reiterated that she thinks the corps could do more to prioritize flood control.
“We need to make sure that humans, human livelihoods, are coming first,” Ernst told reporters. “Not recreation, not boating activities, not fishing activities and certainly not the endangered species.”
That said, efforts to manage the river with a greater focus on flood control might be opposed by upstream states, where thousands of acres were taken out of productivity to form reservoirs, but in return, the states were able to build local economies around tourism and recreation.
Hudson talked about the unpredictability of weather, noting that three of the highest volumes of runoff have been in the past decade but that just a few years before, drought conditions produced some of the lowest runoffs.
Hudson said he understands lawmaker concerns but said the corps already focuses on flood mitigation and protecting people.
“Life safety ultimately is the corps’ priority,” he said. “Where the water is on a boat dock is irrelevant to me.”