Missouri River Flooding – time to end the blame game

2011 has been an extreme year for flooding events across the nation.  However, a few key factors made the Missouri River different from the flooding in other parts of the country.  First, the combination of massive spring rains on top of thaw of heavy snowpack in the plains and mountains approximately doubled the historic record for water flows and extended the flood watch out for almost a half of a year. 

Second, conflicting purposes of the six large mainstem storage reservoirs created additional management challenges.  The Flood Control Act (FCA) of 1944 established eight authorized purposes including flood control, navigation, hydropower, irrigation, water supply and quality, recreation and last but definitely not least, fish and wildlife including endangered species.  Unfortunately, managing these competing interests is tough enough during “normal” times but almost impossible during times when they system is stressed due to extreme drought or flood events.  During these times the management of the reservoirs is guaranteed to end in conflict.

It has been a little over one month since the Corps of Engineers officially declared the Missouri River flooding to be over.  So we appreciate the House leadership taking the time now to host a hearing on the Missouri River flooding, right? Well yes and no. 

Any attention on flooding issues is a good thing.  Brig. Gen. John McMahon from the Corps will be testifying and hopefully reaffirming his call for wise investment choices in the floodplain including designating floodways, establishing corridor easements, setting back levees to allow more room for the river, among others.  I hope that the other voices at this hearing won’t call for continuing the status quo approach or blame the Corps of Engineers and the fish and wildlife for the flooding.  We also cannot continue making huge investments in 19th Century flood control technology.  It’s time for us to implement a modern, 21st Century approach to river management, rather than old approaches like simply building levees taller and stronger, in effect trying to out-build Mother Nature.  I hope the call for an honest and balanced assessment of the flooding and a commonsense voice on solutions that allow more room for the river aren’t drowned out.

I hope the hearing won’t ignore the need for major changes to outdated navigation policies on the lower part of the Missouri River.  Taxpayer dollars continue to be sunk into supporting barge traffic that carries dredge material on average less than one mile along the river.  I also hope that the hearing will persuade those Members of Congress who are working against some of the very solutions like the “Missouri River Authorized Purposes Study” or MRAPS that we need more public involvement, and the most accurate data, and the best science to guide the management of the Missouri River in a comprehensive fashion.  I hope that this hearing will put to rest attempts to stop MRAPS dead in its tracks, as well as proposals to remove fish and wildlife from the list of authorized purposes or tell the Corps how to manage reservoir storage in time of floods.

As we move into 2012 and extreme drought and flood events continue to be the new norm, now is the time to end the blame game and knee-jerk reactions and instead reflect on lessons learned and opportunities for better river management that respect taxpayer dollars, reflect on all interests including the environment honestly and based on science, and that safeguard communities from the next flood.