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Waiting on the levee

Wade Braaten had just settled down with his wife in what they thought would be their retirement lake house in the spring of 2019. It wasn’t until a utility worker came knocking on his door that he realized something was wrong.

“I had no clue it was about to flood, said Braaten, then a resident of Lewis and Clark Village.

And flood it did. In early April of that year, the Rushville-Sugar Lake levee system experienced a massive breach on the Missouri side of the river. The water swamped crop fields, closed down Highway 59 and completely gutted Braaten’s retirement property. Nearly 8,500 acres were flooded.

Two years later, Braaten and his wife, Lisa, decided to sell and move due to a lack of funds to raise their property to Federal Emergency Management Agency insurance standards. This is a situation that many around Highway 59 have become all too familiar with for several decades. Those who live in the Missouri River’s shadow watched as repairs encountered both technical and bureaucratic delays that continued months — and even years — after the actual flood event.

Now, after two years of frustration, work finally is beginning on the Rushville-Sugar Lake levee breach.

“You never know if you are going to be flooded or not. My answer to flood control is a $35,000 camper. I keep it sitting here ready to hook and book and a $500 boat here ready to take on water,” said Jim Wilson, a Sugar Lake resident. “And a water-tight container here to put all my goods in it. This is how I do flood control.”

An air of skepticism

Wilson has had his grievances with local, state and federal entities over the past decade. His specific problem with the flood events of 2019 is that he never got updates for when work would be done to fix the breach. Now, as the levee base is being fixed, Wilson remains pessimistic in most aspects.

“Seeing is believing. When it is in, that is when I believe it,” Wilson said. He also stated that the only way he would be hopeful for the future is if a different approach to the levee fix was taken.

That is exactly what Superior Excavating is doing under the guidance of the Kansas City district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Tobey Barnhart, the site superintendent for Superior Excavating, said the levee work involves a setback repair that moves the levee to prevent a crook from constantly scouring and failing during a major flood.

Currently, the base of the levee is being built, as dirt is being hauled to fill the massive scour that water from the Missouri River created.

This was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to the complexity of problems posed when getting this breach filled.

Even if the funding for the levee breach was there in 2019, there were three separate flood events that year that kept water sitting consistently into the early months of 2020. No work could have been done.

The levee is non-federal, which means 80% of the funding comes from the federal government through the Corps of Engineers. The other 20% was needed to be covered by the local levee district. A grant from the state covered 15% of the local match, leaving just 5% needed to get the project started.

Help from the county became crucial to getting the ball rolling, but the county’s dedicated tax for levee repairs expired early, in August of last year.

Buchanan County was able to come up with $82,000 for the repairs, said Western District Commissioner Ron Hook.

“We advised the president of the levee association, Brian Miller, that we had infrastructure protected by the levee,” Hook said. “And we felt like it was our fair share to assist in financing their portion of it. We had some money left over from money that we set aside from the levee tax.”

Flood of paperwork

But even with the money, the levee repairs encountered other obstacles.

Land that needed to be used to fix the breach was owned by the Wetlands Reserve Program. This program protects wetlands on private properties, so the Corps of Engineers needed to submit paperwork to the federal program in Washington, D.C. before construction could begin.

“Some people don’t know this repair has started. It is not the fault of the Corps of Engineers that have held this up. It is the WRP tract that we had to work through,” Lanny Frakes, a farmer and the secretary/treasurer of the Rushville-Sugar Lake Levee Association, said. “It’s law and we had to go through the process. We have been very vulnerable to flooding and we still are.”

The Wetlands Reserve Program would approve work to be done on the protected land around the holiday season of 2020, under the condition that the excavating company would return the land to the state it found it in. This is when the corps could officially start advertising bidding for the project, which in total is just shy of $1 million. Finally, there was light at the end of the bureaucratic, paperwork-filled tunnel.

Frakes owns farmland protected by this levee and still has damage from the flood events of 2019. He said local farmers in the area have a sense of relief that levee repairs are underway.

“We have to get the levee back before we prep our land. It is quite costly now to put a crop in with crop insurance premiums. We are super grateful and anxious to see something happen,” Frakes said.

Watching the river

People in the area are anxious, waiting for the levee to be filled before the river has the chance to rise again. Another aspect that can provide a breath of fresh air is that Superior Excavating, the company that won the bid for the levee, is relatively local. Barnhart has family from the area, and someone on his crew had property damage done from this specific breach.

“We know that the levee has had issues here since 2019. Me and my family are from Hiawatha, Kansas. We grew up around here. We know quite a few people here and we wanted to help out if we were able to,” Barnhart said.

Barnhart remains optimistic about the timeline to fill the biggest breach. If the weather can stay dry, the biggest hole in the levee could be fixed by late May. There are still minor breaches up and down the levee that need to be filled and will come by early fall.

The “setback” style repair cuts into some farmland. The owner of the land lost around 40 acres of property due to this style of fix, but the land lost is worth it if it makes the rest of the property more productive.

The hope is that this fix does not allow the same type of breach to happen at this point again. But for those who have property down on the levee, the rising waters of the Missouri River sit in the back of their minds.

Wilson, the Sugar Lake resident, looked around at the abandoned structures on his property wondering if it would ever get to the point where he would have to leave his home just like Braaten.

“There is a breaking point for everybody,” Wilson said.

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Child custody bill makes it to state Senate

A new bill is in review with the Missouri General Assembly that could modify parts of the law regarding child custody arrangements.

House Bill 299 and Senate Bill 531 add a rebuttable presumption when determining child custody arrangements that award equal or approximately equal time to each parent, according to the summaries provided for each bill.

The bills would create a presumption in favor of 50/50 child custody in all cases. Considering the child’s best interests currently is required by the law when determining custody.

Allison Tschannen, a partner at Kranitz, Sadoun and Carpenter, said the House bill that has made its way to the Senate would change the structure of the factors considered and create a new baseline.

“The starting point, according to this bill, would be that the court has to look at it in the best interest of the child for each parent to have equal time or near equal time with the child,” Tschannen said.

Currently, there is no presumption of what parenting time or a visitation arrangement should look like.

“It’s solely up to the discretion of the court based on the court’s consideration of a number of specific factors,” Tschannen said.

The factors could include the parents’ wishes and the child’s adjustment to a new living situation, school or community, according to the bill’s documents.

David Bolander, a circuit court judge for Buchanan and Andrew counties, oversees child custody cases and said that each one is different.

“Everybody’s cases are a little bit different; everybody’s circumstances are different. We’re required to look at the best interests of the child and the things that go into that,” Bolander said. “Which parent’s most likely to allow frequent, meaningful contact with the other parent? Has there been any kind of abuse or neglect? What is the connection that the child has or the children have with their community, other relatives?”

Bolander said another of several factors considered is the preference of the child.

There also are different types of custody to be determined, including joint legal custody and joint physical custody.

“There’s legal custody, which is decision-making, and there’s physical custody, which is basically parenting time. That’s what people probably think of most of the time,” Bolander said.

The parents must also submit a proposed parenting plan to the court on what they want the child’s arrangements to be.

“The decision-making, child support, those types of things are all included in that in that parenting plan,” Bolander said. “As a judge, if there’s a contested case, I weigh those. I look at the best interests of the child and determine based on what I see as the best interest and the facts that are presented to me.”

Supporters of the bill shared in a committee document on HB 299 that children who have time with both parents are generally happier and healthier.

This is not the first time a bill with a similar goal has been proposed. Previous bills include HB 724 in 2017, SB 645 HB 1667 in 2018 and SB 14 and HB 229 in 2019.

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For power line opponents, hope hasn't dimmed

Joe Kalin has fond memories of growing up in the Buchanan County countryside.

His father came from Switzerland and turned 87 acres near Faucett, Missouri, into a successful dairy farm, where Kalin lived and worked with four brothers and a sister. Before passing it to the next generation, Kalin’s father instilled a deep appreciation for the land and its productive capacity.

“My parents both come from the old country,” said Kalin, now 84. “My father, he loved to farm. It was given to us boys as an inheritance. We were always told to take care of it, that it would care of us.”

Now, Kalin has his doubts. After surviving an up-and-down farm economy and switching to row crops, he warily anticipates a new threat on the horizon. It’s not the weather.

It’s a 780-mile, high-voltage transmission line that threatens to cut through the land that brought John Kalin to America in the 1920s. The project, known as the Grain Belt Express, seeks to transfer wind power from western Kansas to population centers east of the Mississippi River.

It’s been talked about so much it’s hard to believe the Grain Belt Express has been neither constructed nor completely eliminated as a viable project. Since 2014, counties have granted and then rescinded support and state regulators denied and then approved an application to build the line across northern Missouri.

The company that started the project is no longer in the picture. Invenergy, a Chicago-based business, purchased the Grain Belt Express in 2019.

Now, landowners like Kalin are watching as Missouri lawmakers make another attempt to kill the project. A bill to deny eminent domain rights failed to pass in 2019, but a similar measure, House Bill 527, passed in the House and awaits a Senate hearing in the final weeks of the session.

“Property rights are a foundational right of who we are as the state of Missouri,” said state Rep. Mike Haffner, the bill’s sponsor.

Critics like Haffner and the Missouri Farm Bureau said Grain Belt is not entitled to eminent domain because it is not providing a public benefit but is instead a “merchant” line that buys power in one place and sells it someplace else at a profit. That’s especially true of the Grain Belt Express, according to Haffner, because it’s a direct-current project that would need a costly converter station to provide power in Missouri.

To him, it’s more of a highway with few off-ramps until it exits Missouri.

“There is nothing associated with this line that is increasing the base amount of energy available to the state of Missouri,” said Haffner, a Republican from Cass County. “It is an energy highway. It’s just transporting energy. The intent was to bring it all the way to the East Coast.”

One new wrinkle in this debate came in February when extreme cold weather caused rolling blackouts in Missouri and a near-collapse of the electrical grid in Texas as supply was not able to meet demand. Supporters of the Grain Belt Express, including manufacturing organizations like Associated Industries of Missouri, said the $2.3 billion project will increase the capacity to transport bulk power, which could help meet future spikes in energy demand.

“The bipartisan Missouri Public Service Commission unanimously approved the Grain Belt Express as a public utility project because of the tremendous public benefit it will bring to the Show-Me State,” said Beth Conley, an Invenergy spokeswoman, in a prepared statement. “Missouri’s largest energy infrastructure project will provide payments to landowners and local communities, support 1,500 construction jobs over three years, deliver millions in annual energy savings for 39 Missouri communities and bolster electric reliability to help avoid future emergency outages.”

For his part, Kalin said he isn’t against green energy but opposes being forced to pay the price while others reap the benefits. He doesn’t want to look out the window and see 150-foot power poles where his father once saw a landscape reminiscent of an alpine meadow.

“I don’t like the government telling people what they can do and can’t do with their land,” he said.