Governors Clash Over Missouri River Operations

It was inevitable that controversy over operation of the Missouri River by the Corps of Engineers would surface after the epic flood of 2011.  A recent meeting of Missouri River basin governors in Omaha revealed how significant the disagreement is between upper basin states and lower basin states over flood control, even as Corps officials warn that damage from this year’s flood disaster may make their states even more vulnerable next year.

Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer strongly opposed that flood control for lower basin states should dominate how reservoirs are managed. He told governors of the downstream states that such a plan would lead to empty reservoirs, which are relied upon for hydro-power, recreation, wildlife and agriculture, in Montana and other upper basin states during droughts.

The Corps has declared the Missouri River flood officially over, saying the river has fallen below flood stages from Fort Peck Reservoir in Montana to near St. Louis and water is off the levee system.

“What this means is that we are at a point where we can carefully examine the damages to the levee system and the dams,” said Colonel Anthony Hofmann, commander of the Kansas City District. He expects a report by mid-November.

So far, $27.7 million has been set aside for repairs. The Corps is waiting on funding by Congress for repairs estimated to exceed $1 billion.

After the meeting, Nebraska Governor Heineman told the media “the No. 1 thing we all agree to is flood control.” There was no unanimity on that topic during the meeting, however, after Schweitzer strongly challenged it as a priority.

The downstream governors, whose states saw historic flooding this year, are trying to convince the Corps of Engineers to make flood control the focus for the nation’s longest river. The Corps manages the 2,341-mile-long river, which flows from Montana through North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and Missouri to its confluence with the Mississippi River.

Corps spokesperson General John McMahon told the governors that it could cost $500 million to a $1 billion to repair the system of levees, dams and other flood control systems damaged in the 2011 flooding. He said Congress will need to appropriate the money, and suggested the system could be modified at that time to allow more controlled flooding. McMahon also told the governors the full system won’t be repaired by the time flood season arrives again in spring, and will be “very vulnerable.”

North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple also said the region could face a renewed flood risk because of expected below-average temperatures and saturated soil.

Heineman said after the meeting that the five governors who came in person agree flood management should be their top priority to avoid a repeat of the disastrous 2011 flooding that submerged thousands of acres of farmland, forced residents from their homes and rerouted trains and motorists. Some cities spent millions of dollars trying to protect airports, water treatment plants and other facilities from the flood.

Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota signed a letter to their congressional delegations asking for more federal and state information-sharing. They also asked for an investigation of how the Corps handled the 2011 flood.

The governors attending the Omaha meeting offered a tentative proposal intended to limit next year’s flood risk. The plan would have the Corps lower the water elevation at Garrison Dam, north of Bismarck, North Dakota., by 2.5 feet.  Dalrymple said the plan would create an additional 750,000 acre-feet of storage space, and mark the first step toward a more aggressive long-term flood-control policy. However, it is unclear if such a move would impede repair efforts stymied in places by water that is still high. “Would it prevent something that happened this year? Of course not,” Dalrymple said. “But we do need to look at an operating plan in the context of what happened” in 2011.

Iowa Governor Terry Branstad said his state suffered an estimated $207 million in crop damage, and expressed concern that the high waters weakened flood safeguards along the river. Branstad said every Iowa county along the river suffered some flood damage. “One of our big concerns is obviously the need to focus on flood control, so we don’t have another devastating flood that lasts as long as this one did,” Branstad said.

Schweitzer, attending by phone, voiced frustration that just a few years ago during a drought the downstream states were demanding that more water be released from reservoirs to float barges, a very contentious fight at that time, and now they ask for less water in the reservoirs to allow for more flood control.

The Montana governor, at odds with his colleagues, pointed out they have no authority over the Corps anyway. “I hope all of you guys understand you are a voice, but you have no power to make a decision here,” Schweitzer said.

Learning the hard lessons of 2011 will take time and compromise. Hydro-power customers, including Heartland, will stay involved in this process to ensure that our largest, lowest cost, most reliable renewable resource is not lost in future operational decisions for the Missouri River.

Source: The Argus Leader of Sioux Falls, SD

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