Will the Missouri’s levees hold for another wet season?
October 21st, 2011
Omaha, NE – Some U.S. Senators are wondering what will happen if the Midwest sees a lot of rain next springâ€¦ 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?
â€œAs we think about the next year coming up, I have to imagine everybody on this panel is nervous,â€ Nebraska Senator Mike Johanns said during the Senate Committee hearing on Capitol Hill Tuesday.
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 havenâ€™t been repaired yet, and the Missouri River dam system is still near capacity.
â€œAll of this leads me to believe weâ€™re working our way right back to where we were a year ago,â€ Johanns said. â€œAnd any circumstance – heavier snowmelt, heavy rain – will put us right back to where we were. Where am I wrong about this?â€
Johanns was questioning Brigadier General John McMahon, whoâ€™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 thatâ€™s why they decided to evacuate as much as water from the system as they could, and then get on to starting repairs.
â€œTo 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,â€ 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 â€œdifficult decisionâ€ 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 â€“ in his conference call with reporters Wednesday â€“ to ask if the problem is capacity, what is the Army Corps doing to increase it?
â€œI mean, if we need more storage, because weâ€™re right up against it, if we have another event this year as we had last year, instead of saying, letâ€™s wait, this will take care of itself because we wonâ€™t have another one of these floods for 100 years, thatâ€™s just doing the same thing and hoping for another result,â€ Nelson said.
â€œWe donâ€™t know what this yearâ€™s weather patterns will ultimately be, but I donâ€™t like to just have to by guess and by golly and hope theyâ€™re going to be different.â€
In the hearing, McMahon said government forecasters are seeing a La Nina weather pattern thatâ€™s bringing cooler temperatures and is unlikely to produce higher rainfall â€“ but itâ€™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 thatâ€™s beside the point.
â€œThereâ€™s not a plan in place to even talk about what it might take to avoid having this happen again,â€ Nelson said.
â€œWeâ€™re calculating, and well, the weather patterns last year were uniqueâ€¦ Well, I donâ€™t know about climate change and I donâ€™t know about weather patterns changing temporarily. But what I do know that if we have the same result next year that weâ€™ve had right now, heads better roll.â€
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 Riversâ€™ 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.
â€œWe have to do those repairs, so have to find the money somewhere,â€ she said. â€œEverything has to be on the table. Weâ€™re looking to the out-year projects, things that arenâ€™t scheduled to be funded until later next year. But weâ€™re running out of those kinds of projects.â€
At the hearingâ€™s end, Senator Johanns urged his colleagues from both parties on the committee to come together and find the money to appropriate soon â€“ before itâ€™s too late.
â€œI appreciate it is very difficult economic times and budget times, and somehow, some way, weâ€™ve got to figure out how to fund these things,â€ he said. â€œBut the reality is Iâ€™m a little bit worried that weâ€™re going to hit a drop dead date here where in Midwest, thereâ€™s no construction season left.â€
â€œIf we appropriate in December, it isnâ€™t going to help much.â€
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