Tom Waters

Tom Waters, chairman of the Missouri Levee and Drainage District Association, testifies before a U.S. House subcommittee on water resources in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

Lewis A. Pick and William G. Sloan, namesakes of the Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Program, envisioned in the 1940s a system of dams on the Missouri River to provide flood protection, irrigation and power generation.

Tom Waters believes the original intent of the plan has been set adrift.

“This was a once highly engineered system, but over the past 20 years it’s been used to conduct super-sized science experiments for two birds and a fish,” he said. “These experiments have decimated the flood control system.”

Waters, a seventh-generation farmer and chairman of the Missouri Levee and Drainage District Association, made the remarks in Washington this week as a witness at a House Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee hearing.

His testimony spoke to this year’s flooding on the Missouri River, the damage to levees along the waterway and the federal policies that affect both of these things.

North Missouri Congressman Sam Graves, the top Republican on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said at the Wednesday hearing that his district has 81 levee systems and 2,552 miles of levees. These levees, he said, protect highly productive farmland and thousands of individuals and businesses.

Despite this, flood control has taken a back seat to other priorities, according to the lawmaker.

“From Gavins Point Dam to the mouth of the Missouri River, we’re slated to spend only $13 million on annual levee maintenance while at the same time we’re slated to spend $30.7 million on wildlife reclamation and habitat creation in that same stretch of river,” Graves said.

Such a funding gap, he insisted, means “there have to be some adjustments made on consideration of people’s lives and their property.”

Graves is the only congressman with a district defined on its eastern and western boundaries by the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

Waters and his family raise row crops in bottomlands along the Missouri River near Orrick, Missouri, about 75 miles southeast of St. Joseph.

He told lawmakers that this year’s high water has caused more than 100 levees to be breached along the Missouri River. He appealed for quick and ample funding to restore the protections.

Further, he said that flood control infrastructure needs to be a national priority, just like the highway system, the power grid and communications networks.

The witness regarded this as an economic necessity.

“In Missouri, one third of the crop produced in the state is produced in the 100-year flood plain,” Waters said. “We’ve got a massive part of that flood plain under water now. That’s going to have a huge impact on the state’s economy.”

Waters said adjustments to the river, mostly to accommodate habitat for fish and birds, have caused impediments to a more natural flow of the waterway.

“Missouri and Iowa farmland was not meant to be the Fish and Wildlife Service laboratory,” he said, “and Midwestern farmers no longer want to be their guinea pigs.”

Ken Newton can be reached


Follow him on Twitter: @SJNPNewton.

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