April 17, 2019 5:30 PM, EDT

Army Corps of Engineers Takes Heat in Wake of Missouri River Flooding

MeetingMaj. Gen. Scott Spellmon, center left, and John Remus of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Nati Harnik/Associated Press)

The federal agency that manages dams along the Missouri River received stern criticism from several U.S. senators earlier this month during a hearing held to examine the massive flooding that caused more than $3 billion in damage in the Midwest.

The flooding and subsequent actions taken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — which has been criticized in the wake of the flooding — were the focus of the April 17 congressional field hearing, held in Glenwood, Iowa.

Critics have demanded that the agency make flood control its top priority, though Congress would have to act to change the Corps’ priorities.

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said flooding shouldn’t be such a regular occurrence along the Missouri River. “The trend of flood and rebuild, flood and rebuild must end,” she said.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) added that the Corps should be more aggressive in preventing flood damage.


Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, (D-N.Y.), right, directs a question to Maj. Gen. Scott Spellmon, deputy commanding general, civil and emergency operations of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, center, as Sen. Joni Ernst, (R-Iowa), left, listens, during a field hearing of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, in Glenwood, Iowa. (Nati Harnik/Associated Press)

“They are too slow, too bureaucratic and they don’t have enough money,” said Gillibrand, who is running for president and was in Iowa touring flood damage. She took part in the hearing because she serves on the Senate committee that oversees the Corps.

The senators’ sentiments may be appealing in Midwestern states that have endured flooding along rivers that the Corps is charged with managing, but they may not be as popular with supporters of other approved uses of the river, such as protecting endangered species and navigation.

Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), whose district includes the northwestern Missouri area ravaged by the massive Midwest floods in March, introduced a bill this month that would remove fish and wildlife as an authorized management priority on the Missouri River and make flood control the highest priority. The bill would require revision of the Missouri River Master Manuel within 90 days of enactment.

“Time and again, we continue to see fish and birds take precedence over people and property when it comes to managing the Missouri River,” Graves said in a statement. “This latest round of flooding has devastated communities up and down the river. We already know that the management practices are contributing to it.”


The Missouri River and its flooded banks between La Platte, Neb., and Glenwood, Iowa. (Nati Harnik/Associated Press)

Robert Criss, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis who has been studying flooding for more than two decades, said there may be a more important factor than how the Corps’ priorities are ranked.

The Missouri River has been made narrower over the years, Criss said, and the Corps has worked to maintain a defined channel for barge traffic even though few barges ever cross the river near Iowa and Nebraska.

“We’re having this problem because we messed with the rivers too much,” Criss said.

The Corps’ John Remus said the agency works to balance all the uses of the river, but said flood control is the main concern anytime flooding is imminent along the Missouri River.

“The No. 1 priority of the Corps in its operations is life and public safety,” Remus said.

The Corps has said that much of the water that caused the Midwest flooding in March came from rain and melting snow that flowed into the Missouri River, downstream of all the dams it controls. At the same time, some of the massive amount of water that was filling the reservoirs had to be released.


Residents listen to testimony during a field hearing of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, in Glenwood, Iowa. (Nati Harnik/Associated Press)

Farmer Leo Ettleman said the Corps should have made significant changes to its operating manual after the historic 2011 floods, but neither the Corps nor Congress took action. Ettlemen said the kind of flooding the area saw this spring will continue unless changes are made.

“In the past eight years, Congress has done little or nothing except to offer prayers and thoughts, which are appreciated, but won’t fix the problem,” said Ettleman, who farms near Percival, Iowa, and joined a lawsuit against the Corps after the 2011 flood.

Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst farms near the Missouri River, and said the lessons from this year’s flooding should lead to changes about where levees are built and how the river is managed.

“When flood recovery is complete, we will have failed if every structure is the same as it was and if the management of the river has not changed,” Hurst said. “To do the same things and expect better results is the triumph of hope over experience.”

Mike Peluso, a longtime professional fisherman who runs an outdoors and guide service in North Dakota, said he doesn’t want to see management of the river “swayed one way or the other” for political reasons.

“They are more populated down south, I get that,” he said. “But it’s the same river regardless of whether or not you’ve got a million people or 100,000 people. It needs to be managed from the top down.”

He added, “I have a hard time believing with all the technology and brainpower we have we can’t find a balance” between flood protection and other interests such as recreation.

Greg Power, fisheries division chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, said he believes the Corps does “a pretty good job” of managing the Missouri River system.

“Flood control is still a high priority within the Corps, I know that,” Power said. “Some of these water years are pretty incredible themselves, and I would hate to be a Corps person, to be honest.”