A crowd estimated at 200 or more attended a Senate committee hearing in Glenwood last Wednesday, a hearing at which southwest Iowans whose homes, farms and communities were devastated by flooding that began in mid-March talked about causes and impacts.
Residents of the impacted areas and their congressional representatives all came with the same basic question: What can the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers do better to manage the Missouri River Basin in the future so drastic flooding does not happen again?
Not unexpectedly, the Corps defended the way it handled this year’s flooding, arguing it could not have been prevented because of the large weather event that came together in March to create it: Snowfall, rain, frozen ground and a rapid temperature increase.
John Remus, the chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Missouri River Basin Water Management Division, said the Corps’ operational decisions on the river’s six large dams for the last 13 months have been driven by concern for the lives and property of those living in the basin.
Remus was quick to add that the Corps’ dams and lakes that store runoff on the river were ineffective last month because runoff entered the river below the dams.
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said flooding shouldn’t be such a regular occurrence along the Missouri River, adding, “The trend of flood and rebuild, flood and rebuild must end.” Hers was a sound bite lacking a solution.
Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, D-New York, one of a host of 2020 presidential hopefuls, said the Corps should be more aggressive in preventing flood damage and consider the effects of climate change. Another sound bite and a worthwhile suggestion scoffed at by the current administration.
“They are too slow, too bureaucratic and they don’t have enough money,” she said.
Gillibrand echoed the prepared remarks of Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who noted, “Breached, overtopped or compromised levees span hundreds of miles on the Missouri River in Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas. It is estimated that the Corps may need $10 billion to make repairs to the federal system. That figure does not include those levees not in the federal program nor does it address the need for higher or better structures.
“It took a long time for these communities to recover from the catastrophic flooding that took place eight years ago. They have also suffered from more minor flooding more frequently since 2007,” Grassley added. “It is no wonder that an awful lot of Iowans are frustrated and feel that they are back at square one.”
No small part of that frustration lies at the feet of Congress, which has been slow, if not lax, in providing the funds and regulations that would allow the Corps to better do its job. While the Corps maintains that flood control remains at the top of its list of priorities, there are other priorities — eight in all — each with its army of vocal defenders.
Rep. Sam Graves, R-Missouri, introduced a bill that would remove fish and wildlife management as one of the Corps’ authorized management priorities. While it makes sense that people and property should be apriority, the legislation, if approved, will almost certainly be fought in court.
Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst said it best: “When flood recovery is complete, we will have failed if every structure is the same as it was and if the management of the river has not changed. To do the same things and expect better results is the triumph of hope over experience.”
While the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the easy scapegoat for the current flooding, the Corps should be far from alone in shouldering the blame.