Will the Missouri’s levees hold for another wet season?

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October 21st, 2011

Omaha, NE – Some U.S. Senators are wondering what will happen if the Midwest sees a lot of rain next spring… or even just a little more than normal. The Senate held a hearing this week on the handling of the 2011 Missouri River Flood, where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was asked: are we prepared for next year?

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“As we think about the next year coming up, I have to imagine everybody on this panel is nervous,” Nebraska Senator Mike Johanns said during the Senate Committee hearing on Capitol Hill Tuesday.

Sen. Johanns listened to testimony from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Tuesday. (Photo courtesy U.S. Senate)

Johanns, and his colleagues on the Committee on Environment and Public Works listened to testimony from the Army Corps, along with local and state officials, and each generally praised the Army Corps for their handling of a difficult year for natural disasters.

But the conciliatory tone was tempered by a certain amount of urgency and a looming problem: the ground is saturated, many of the levees haven’t been repaired yet, and the Missouri River dam system is still near capacity.

“All of this leads me to believe we’re working our way right back to where we were a year ago,” Johanns said. “And any circumstance – heavier snowmelt, heavy rain – will put us right back to where we were. Where am I wrong about this?”

Johanns was questioning Brigadier General John McMahon, who’s in charge of managing the Missouri River for the Army Corps. McMahon said the Corps understands the system is more vulnerable now than it was last year. And that’s why they decided to evacuate as much as water from the system as they could, and then get on to starting repairs.

“To do more, to evacuate more water, would take away the time we needed to get the water out of the flood plain, out of farms, out of homes, out of businesses,” McMahon said. He said the Corps, as well as cities, states and counties, needed to begin inspecting and repairing infrastructure, and the Corps made the “difficult decision” to spend less time evacuating water to create capacity in the system, and more time getting to repairs.

That response led Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson – in his conference call with reporters Wednesday – to ask if the problem is capacity, what is the Army Corps doing to increase it?

“I mean, if we need more storage, because we’re right up against it, if we have another event this year as we had last year, instead of saying, let’s wait, this will take care of itself because we won’t have another one of these floods for 100 years, that’s just doing the same thing and hoping for another result,” Nelson said.

Nebraska faces $155 million in damages to public infrastructure from the Missouri Flood of 2011, according to the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources. (Photo by Josh Korth)

“We don’t know what this year’s weather patterns will ultimately be, but I don’t like to just have to by guess and by golly and hope they’re going to be different.”

In the hearing, McMahon said government forecasters are seeing a La Nina weather pattern that’s bringing cooler temperatures and is unlikely to produce higher rainfall – but it’s difficult to predict. The issue of climate change was also brought up, and its impact on increasing the likelihood of flooding, but Nelson said that’s beside the point.
“There’s not a plan in place to even talk about what it might take to avoid having this happen again,” Nelson said.

“We’re calculating, and well, the weather patterns last year were unique… Well, I don’t know about climate change and I don’t know about weather patterns changing temporarily. But what I do know that if we have the same result next year that we’ve had right now, heads better roll.”

Another immediate problem that emerged in the hearing is the Army Corps has barely enough funding to cover the repairs it needs to complete. Jo Ellen Darcy is the Assistant Secretary of the Army, Civil Works. She said the Corps needs about $2 billion to cover repairs from Missouri and Mississippi Rivers’ flooding this year, along with hurricane damage in the Northeast from Lee and Irene. She said the agency is already transferring money from other projects to pay for the most immediate needs.

“We have to do those repairs, so have to find the money somewhere,” she said. “Everything has to be on the table. We’re looking to the out-year projects, things that aren’t scheduled to be funded until later next year. But we’re running out of those kinds of projects.”

At the hearing’s end, Senator Johanns urged his colleagues from both parties on the committee to come together and find the money to appropriate soon – before it’s too late.

“I appreciate it is very difficult economic times and budget times, and somehow, some way, we’ve got to figure out how to fund these things,” he said. “But the reality is I’m a little bit worried that we’re going to hit a drop dead date here where in Midwest, there’s no construction season left.”

“If we appropriate in December, it isn’t going to help much.”

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