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Levee Breach

An aerial view of a levee breach in Atchison County, Missouri. Federal efforts are underway to rehabilitate levees affected by spring flooding along the Missouri River.

Here we go again. Another round of flooding looms for farms and communities all along the lower basin of the Missouri River, from Nebraska to St. Louis.

This follows devastating flooding, beginning in March, that closed major highways and obliterated levees. Farms, homes and businesses were lost. In Atchison County, a massive, rotting pile of soybeans caught fire and burned for weeks.

Those who are still struggling to recover can’t help but feel demoralized at the thought of a second round of flooding. Or is it the third? We’ve lost track.

Even more demoralizing may be the tendency of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to describe this year’s flooding in terms that make it appear to be solely an act of nature. The Corps places blame on heavy rain in the upper basin during the first weeks of September. This caused runoff, at 49.9 million acre feet as of Sept. 13, to exceed the 1997 mark of 49 million.

Only 2011, with 61 million acre feet, produced more runoff.

Those three years are keys to understanding something the Corps isn’t telling us: That this year’s damage could have been prevented, or at least minimized, with different priorities for river management. All three years — 1997, 2011 and 2019 — saw heavy runoff into the Missouri River and its tributaries. Only one of those years — 1997 — did not result in major flooding.

Why? Because 2004 marked a year that the Corps, under pressure from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, enacted new river management policies that favored endangered species over flood control. The new Master Manual for river management, along with the Missouri River Recovery Program that aims to boost the fish and bird population, means that more water is stored in upstream reservoirs.

Dan Boulware, the St. Joseph attorney who sued the Corps for damage that property owners sustained along the river, sometimes compared storage capacity to a tub. When it’s too full, that means all the water goes down the drain all at once. Those who live along the river can tell you what happens next.

We can find one hopeful note in a woeful story that’s been repeated too many times this year. This is not solely an act of nature or a result of climate change. (No climate or weather expert in the river litigation connected the flooding to global warming).

It is a problem that the Corps has the ability to address, most likely at the urging of Congress. Sadly, we’ve seen lots of talk about flood control but little action from Washington. “How bad does it have to get?” Boulware asks.

We’ve got another question. Is the Corps aware that storage capacity and river management play a role in this flooding? Or is it trying to rewrite history?

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