Guest Editorials

Flooding: Where We Are, Where We’ve Been And Where We Need To Go

By Tom Waters

The flood of 2019 has wreaked havoc in Missouri, Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska. From Omaha to Kansas City, more than 100 breaches in levees allowed the Missouri River to spread across some of the nation’s most productive farmland and through Missouri and Iowa communities. In each case, levees performed as designed. However, the volume and velocity of the river exceeded the design of the flood control system.

Heavy snow and rain running into the river caused it to rise to record levels. Most of the runoff entered the river below Fort Randall Dam. Water running into Lewis and Clark Lake (Gavins Point Dam) had to be released through the dam, because the Lewis and Clark Reservoir has little to no storage available. It is a regulation dam, which means what comes into the lake must be released. Compounding the excessive rain and snow event was a breach of the Spencer Dam on the Niobrara River in Nebraska, allowing even more water to run into Lewis and Clark Lake. The system was overwhelmed and could not handle the amount of water being released by reservoir operators working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The “bomb cyclone” that brought heavy snow and rain happened quickly and did not allow time for thousands of citizens to move grain, equipment, property and belongings out of harm’s way. The result is millions of bushels of grain loss, homes destroyed, livestock losses and lives ruined. One farmer I talked to lost his home, his machinery, and over half his 2018 crop, which was stored in grain bins. He will not be able to plant a crop in 2019, and doubts his bank will lend him money to recover and continue to farm in the future. This fifth-generation farmer is only one example of thousands suffering from the lack of flood protection needed to prevent Missouri River flooding.

Missouri River Operations

For decades, the federal government has focused Missouri River operations on fish and wildlife. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has used the Endangered Species Act as a huge hammer to force the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to change the way the flood control system is operated on the Missouri River.

The Missouri is a highly engineered river. In the upper basin, above Yankton, S.D., the world’s largest system of dams and reservoirs was built to capture snow melt and spring runoff. Below Yankton, levees and smaller lakes and reservoirs provide flood protection as water is released from the system above. Sadly, the system, as originally designed, was never finished, and the Pick-Sloan Plan for the Missouri River never reached its intended potential.

The system was built for flood control. Along with flood control, engineers designed the lower river to provide navigation to move products up and down the river. For decades, the flood control and navigation system brought great economic benefits to the Missouri River Basin. These two primary purposes also allowed for other benefits to develop, such as water supply, hydropower, irrigation, water quality control, and recreation, which includes fish and wildlife.

In 1973, things began to change. With the passage of the Endangered Species Act, the Corps of Engineers began making changes to the structures in the river, which were designed to provide for a 300-foot-wide and 9-foot-deep channel. The Corps began notching dikes, revetments and other structures designed to control the flow of the river and provide flood control and navigation in the lower river. The notching continues today, 46 years later.

Other changes have taken place over the years as well. Drought periods impacted the recreation industry in the upper basin and upper basin states began to push for changes in the way reservoir levels were managed. This kicked off a period of great contention between upper and lower basin states.

As calls for changes in the Missouri River Master Water Control Manual were made by upper basin states, some environmental groups saw an opportunity to take over the management of the river. They pressed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to get involved. Three threatened and endangered species were identified, and the power of the Endangered Species Act would soon cause a dramatic shift in the way the Corps operated the system. Instead of using the highly engineered system for flood control and navigation as originally designed, the Corps found itself dismantling the system piece by piece through increased dike notching and conducting experiments for the Fish and Wildlife Service, which were designed to “connect the river to the floodplain”—or, in more understandable terms, designed to cause flooding along the Missouri River!

Failed experiment after failed experiment over the past 20-plus years have substantially changed the previously highly engineered river. Structures that once provided a stable channel have been weakened, and in some cases removed. Side channels and chutes have been opened to allow the river to flow uncontrolled and cause erosion and scouring. Flood control has been diminished, and riverboat pilots find it hard to navigate the channel, which has become dangerous at many locations. A system once used to provide flood control is now being used as a super-sized science experiment for two birds and a fish. As a result, we are seeing greater floods more often, human lives have been lost and people are enduring great suffering. All the while, no scientific evidence can be found to show any of the changes have even helped the fish and two birds.

The Corps has spent over two-thirds of a billion dollars making changes to the river since 2005, in the name of Missouri River fish and wildlife recovery. Meanwhile, we continue to see more water enter the river at higher velocities.

Note the graph on this page from the Corps of Engineers. Prior to 1973, the runoff above Sioux City reached the upper decile level only three times, while since 1973, runoff has been in the upper decile 11 times. Clearly, more water is coming into the system, more often.

Changes must be made! The flood of 2019 can more accurately be describe as the flood of 1973 through 2019. 1973 is when the dike notching began. This was the first of many changes to the original design of the river. In 2004, Congress approved changes to the Missouri River Master Water Control Manual so that flood control was no longer the primary purpose for the flood control system. Instead, the Corps is forced to try to balance all the purposes of the system to the detriment of their ability to provide flood protection.

Flood control must be the top priority for the operation of the Missouri River flood control system. Flood control was the original purpose for building the system back in 1944. Flood control is even more necessary today than it was in 1944. Inflows into the system are greater and the system has not been improved to meet the challenges of higher flows and greater velocities. The system has been modified to reduce flood control rather than improve flood control. The tipping point has been reached and people have suffered enough.

If flood control is made the top priority for the management of the system, infrastructure improvements can be made and flooding can be reduced or even eliminated. We cannot build an umbrella over the coastlines to protect people from hurricanes and we cannot bolt together the fault lines to protect people from earthquakes, but we can build flood control infrastructure to protect people and property from flooding. They do it in Holland and China, and we can do it here in the United States. The key is for Congress to make flood control the top priority.

This should be easy for Congress to do. Following flood after flood along the Missouri River, Congress has spent millions upon millions of dollars for recovery. Congress needs to spend money up front to prevent the damages in the first place. Improving infrastructure now can reduce or eliminate the expense of recovery later.

Some will say just move everyone and everything out of the floodplain and allow the river to run wild. These uneducated scholars do not understand the economic value of the farmland found in the nation’s bottomlands. In Missouri alone, over one third of the crop production is located in the fertile river valleys. The highly productive soil found adjacent to the nation’s rivers makes our country strong. About 100,000 acres of river bottomland can produce enough calories to feed over 1 million people for an entire year. What a waste it would be to allow rivers to run wild and destroy such a valuable part of our nation’s strength.

Food production makes the United States strong. When we want to put pressure on other countries, we use food to encourage them to do the right thing. When we want to help other countries, we send them food. Food is the strength and leverage we have that many other countries only wish they had. Protecting our food production protects all Americans.  Sure, the United States has the strongest military in the world, but as a peaceful nation, food is the most powerful tool we can use before turning to the use of bullets.

Meanwhile, the flooding for this year is likely not over. The system is primed for more flooding, and the Missouri River could reach even higher levels at some locations than we saw earlier this year. A second storm in the plains of the upper basin dumped more rain and snow, all of which must eventually move through the system. The Corps of Engineers will have to increase releases to move water from the upper basin reservoirs. In addition, the Corps will need to begin making releases from reservoirs in Kansas which have been holding water back to aid with flooding downstream of Kansas City. The combination of releases from Kansas and the Upper Basin will keep the river high through the spring and summer. Heavy rains anywhere along the river will likely cause additional flooding this year. With over 100 levees already breached, and communities and property left unprotected, the combination of reservoir releases and heavy rainfall this spring or summer could bring even more heartache and devastation to the Missouri River Basin. This, as recovery begins and the people along the Missouri River seek help to put their lives and livelihoods back together.

The congressional delegations in the Midwest cannot do it by themselves. It will take the entire Congress to understand and fix the problem. Flooding occurs nearly every day somewhere in the United States. The decline of our flood control infrastructure is not limited to the Missouri River. In his testimony during a recent Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works field hearing, Maj. Gen. Scott Spellmon, the Corps’ deputy commanding general for civil and emergency operations, opened his remarks with a brief review of the many places across the country impacted by flooding this year.

“At one point, over 300 river gauges indicated a flood stage somewhere in the nation, and there were over 183 reported ice jams on rivers across the northern portion of the country,” he said. He went on to describe flooding occurring in Ohio, the Vicksburg and Memphis Engineer Districts, North Dakota, Colorado, California, Oregon and of course along much of the Missouri River. The long list of flooding locations serves to remind us that the lack of attention to flood control infrastructure over the past several years is a national problem, which impacts nearly every corner of the country.

The lack of emphasis on flood control over the past 20-plus years and the current inadequate infrastructure must be addressed as a national priority, and Congress must act to correct the problem. Floods do not discriminate. Flood control is not a partisan issue. It is an issue affecting the entire country, and, as such, the entire Congress should support prioritizing flood control first. Without flood control, nothing else matters.

Tom Waters is chairman of the Missouri Levee and Drainage District Association. He operates his family farming business in the Missouri River bottoms east of Kansas City, Mo.