The year 2018 might go down as a period of drought, but farmers along the Missouri River still share ongoing concerns about another problem: too much water.
These farmers know, in the last decade, Missouri River flooding is likely to be a man-made phenomenon rather than a product of Mother Nature.
Farmers received a modicum of good news late last year when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers signed off on an environmental plan that excludes a “spring rise” aimed at protecting endangered bird and fish species along the waterway.
This comes as a relief, since a spring rise was analogous to a man-made flood affecting property and economic activity throughout the lower basin. That kind of flooding spawned a massive federal lawsuit, with a judge agreeing that some of the best farmland in the country was flooded due to river management that prioritized endangered species over farming and commercial activity.
The Missouri River Recovery Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement calls for building hundreds of acres of Missouri River habitat for endangered birds and fish. The Corps of Engineers developed the plan with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to identify a way to operate the Missouri River for all of its intended purposes — including farming and navigation — while complying with the Endangered Species Act.
While the elimination of the spring rise is welcome, those who manage the Missouri River remain torn between complying with one judge’s order to protect endangered species and a separate ruling that sided with farmers. The environmental plan still contains authorization for a one-time surge in reservoir releases to see if the pallid sturgeon will use it as a spawning cue.
This sounds like another name for a spring rise, pulse, or whatever you choose to call it. Farmers along the river would call it a bad year.
The past year didn’t bring dramatic images of overtopped levees, but the river already is altered. A wider, slower channel leaves farmers with water seepage and blocked drainage ditches in a good year.
With reservoir levels high, what happens when it’s not a good year?
“This is a changed river,” said Dan Boulware, the attorney who won the lawsuit filed on behalf of farmers. “The river is now flood-prone. It’s going to stay flood-prone until Congress does something.”
The Corps of Engineers shows what happens when a bureaucratic entity tries to please too many masters and ends up pleasing no one. Congress, which in the past has threatened to defund the Recovery Management Plan, should display no such squeamishness.
Congress needs to take action on behalf of farmers before 2019 turns into another year of great flooding.