Missouri River Farmers Face Continued Hurdles

Missouri River Farmers Face Continued Hurdles

Farmers and others who live along the Missouri River and were affected by historic flooding in 2011 have to haul away layers of sand from their fields, and make decisions about flood-ruined farmsteads.

Farmers along the Missouri River in Fremont County in the corner of southwest Iowa have been at work this fall trying to peel the multiple layers of sand off their farmland as well as dig out irrigation rigs and make decisions about flood-ruined farmsteads. The aerial view shows the water from this past summer's historic flooding has receded and buildings still stand, but at ground level, damage from months of standing water and flowing sand is evident.

Jeff Jorgenson, a farmer who serves on the board of directors of the Iowa Soybean Association, lost about 1,500 acres of planted crops to the fooding that started in early June, when the Army Corps was forced to release unprecedented outflows from the upper Missouri reservoirs, and the pressure broke through levees at Percival, Hamburg and farther on down the river into Missouri.

Several Iowa Soybean Association leaders traveled to the area in late summer to visit with Jorgenson and other affected farmers and hear from them about the challenges they face. The water level returned to normal sometime in October, after about five months of flooding.

Will Congress appropriate funding to pay for rebuilding broken levees?

According to Jorgenson, the biggest hurdle facing farmers now is convincing Congress to appropriate enough funding to rebuild the broken levees so they can be certified at the 100-year-flood protection level. Without that protection, farmers cannot get crop insurance, and their efforts at reclaiming their land may be for nothing. The U.S. Army Corps has surveyed a new levee location at the Percival break and would be willing to work over the winter. However, they need assurances that at least $120 million will be available to make those repairs. That funding is currently being held up in Congress, where, farmers are being told, they must find offsets for the funding before it can be approved.

"There have never been offsets required for disaster assistance before," explains Leo Ettleman, Iowa soybean grower and a member of Responsible River Management, a group of flood-affected farmers who are working together, trying to elevate awareness among government officials and the public of the area farmers' situation.

Iowa Congressman King discusses Missouri River management

A U.S. House subcommittee held a hearing November 30 to discuss the management of the Missouri River. Iowa Congressman Steve King has introduced legislation that would require the Army Corps of Engineers to revise its management policies to increase the total amount of storage space within the Missouri River reservoir system that is allocated for flood control.

King, a Republican, told the panel Corps officials initially stated they would not alter their policies because they felt the flooding this past summer was a "500 year flood" event. "I want to emphasize that we have 150 years of records and they're declaring a 500 year event," King said. "If you had 10,000 years of records and (flooding) happened a couple times a millennia, you might be able to say this is a 500 year event. No mortal can tell you it's a 500 year event."

The Corps announced in early November that it would change how it manages the river. King believes Congress should still take charge of flood control in the Missouri River basin. "We have to tell them…if we don't tell them, (the Corps) will slide back to being run by the environmental interests as opposed to the first priority, which should be protection from flooding downstream," King said.

Army Corps of Engineers must change its policy for managing the river

Many lawmakers have blamed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at least in part for the severity of the flooding that destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes and reduced miles of highways and interstates to rubble. Iowa Congressman Leonard Boswell, a Democrat, who took part in the hearing, said the flooding "requires us to change our policies."

As a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Congressman Leonard Boswell also took part in the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment hearing on November 30 regarding Missouri River flood management and operational plans for the future. The hearing also heard testimony from other members of Congress as well as the Corps of Engineers.

"The size and scope of the Missouri River flooding that we witnessed this year, I believe, is an event that requires us to reevaluate our priorities and adapt and alter programs and responses to deal with changing realities," Boswell said during the hearing. "If there should be tough budgetary decisions, and at this time I believe we all agree that there must be, then we should prioritize flood protection and mitigation above all others."

The full text of Congressman Boswell's statement is as follows:

From:  The Honorable Leonard L. Boswell

To:  Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment Hearing

Regarding:  The Missouri River Flood: An Assessment of the River Management in 2011 and Operational Plans for the Future

Date:  November 30, 2011

I would first like to thank Chairman Gibbs and Ranking Member Bishop for holding this important hearing.  As a Member of Congress representing a state bordering the Missouri River, I can attest to the validity of this hearing.

Mr. Chairman, from time to time, I believe circumstances require us all to reevaluate plans and concepts that we thought were sufficient to deal with certain events. I believe sometimes, circumstances require us to reevaluate priorities to deal with changing realities. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging this. In fact, I believe it should be encouraged. However, it does seem that on occasion, government gets in the way of this acknowledgement. And when it does, the machinery of government oftentimes does not have the flexibility to change and adapt in a timely manner. This does not always happen, yet when it does, it can have long lasting impacts on affected communities.

The size and scope of the Missouri River flooding that we witnessed this year, I believe, is an event that requires us to reevaluate our priorities and adapt and alter programs and responses to deal with changing realities. The length of time that we witnessed historic flood waters was something I think no one was really prepared to deal with.

Temporary levees were constructed to protect farmland and communities.  According to conversations I am having with people in the Southwestern part of Iowa, local officials are being told to deconstruct those temporary levees. Why?  We do not yet know what type of winter we are going to witness, and what type of runoff we are going to have in the spring as a result. 

So why must we spend money to deconstruct something that is doing nothing but protecting communities when we do not yet know whether or not we are going to have to spend money on rebuilding it in nine or ten months? Is the answer because it is not in a master plan that recent events have proven to be outdated?  That simply makes absolutely ZERO sense, but it is those types of actions that drive up costs, and frankly, drives up the blood pressure of local citizens who have to deal with these changing realities.

Furthermore, the scope of flooding events across the country should call into question spending priorities and how we can better focus national resources when it comes to flood protection, conservation, recreation, and so forth.  Personally, I do believe in conservation, however, we must not sacrifice flood protection and the protection of lives and property for the sake of conservation.  If we do, there simply will be nothing left to conserve as the flood waters wash away natural habitats and communities in their path. 

If there should be tough budgetary decisions, and at this time I believe we all agree that there must be, then we should prioritize flood protection and mitigation above all others.  However, over the last decade or so, funding levels for flood protection in the Missouri River states have steadily declined, where funding levels for environmental works have steadily increased. This is not to say that there is not a time and place for environmental works, for there are, but we as leaders simply cannot sacrifice entire communities by continually shortchanging flood protection.

It is my sincere hope that this hearing will provide the Committee with the information needed to make an informed decision on how best to move forward.  And I once again thank the Chairman and Ranking Member for calling this hearing to order.

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