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U.S. Senators Demand Better Flood Control; Corps Of Engineers Says Top Priority Is Peoples' Safety

Katie Peikes
IPR file
The Missouri River between Council Bluffs, Ia. and Omaha, Neb.

More than 200 people attended a Senate committee hearing in southwest Iowa Wednesday, where U.S. senators and people who live near the Missouri River wanted answers on what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can do better to manage the Missouri River Basin in the future so drastic flooding does not happen again.
Sharon Sheldon said she can’t get to her Percival home or farmland because of the flooding. She said she doesn’t like the way the Corps has been managing the river.

“We have to be proactive instead of reactive and understand where the priorities lie in that river. They should not be for fish and wildlife and other things. People and livelihoods should be the priority on the river," Sheldon said. 

The Corps defended the way it handled this year’s flooding, arguing it could not have been prevented because of the large weather event that came together in March to create it: snowfall, rain, frozen ground and a rapid temperature increase.

"This is an ongoing disaster. People are hurting, the floodwaters are still in homes and neighborhoods and lives have yet to be rebuilt." -U.S. Senator Joni Ernst, R-Ia.

John Remus, the chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Missouri River Basin Water Management Division, said the Corps' operational decisions on the river’s six large dams for the last 13 months have been driven by concerns for peoples’ lives and property.

“During this critical period, our principal and sole focus has been on flood control of the system,” Remus said.

Remus said the Corps’ dams and lakes that store runoff on the river were ineffective last month because runoff entered the river below the dams.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Ia., called the hearing to collect testimony from the Corps of Engineers and people along the Missouri River and its tributaries who were affected by the flooding.  

“This is an ongoing disaster,” Ernst said. “People are hurting, the floodwaters are still in homes and neighborhoods and lives have yet to be rebuilt.”

That includes more than 700 people in the town of Hamburg in Fremont County. Hamburg Mayor Cathy Crain testified in front of Ernst, Iowa Republican Sen. Grassley, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and spoke about a 13-foot high emergency temporary levee that protected the town in 2011.

The town had to tear the levee down 120 days after the 2011 flood because it could not raise the money to meet federal certification for it. Last month, over 11 feet of water flooded the town, Crain said.

“Now we talk about rebuilding the levee and once again, we need to sign another contract with the United States of America for a temporary levee,” Crain said. “All this and we’re back where we started? The only difference is we’re destroyed. We must have a permanent levee solution.”

Crain continued, “Make flood prevention the No. 1 priority. We never saw Missouri River water from 1952 until 2011, until the politics changed.”

"Even if flood control were the only authorized purposes for these six projects and they were all empty, this event still would have occurred." -Major General Scott Spellmon

The panel of U.S. senators questioned the Corps about how much it values flood protection on the river. The Corps has eight purposes authorized by Congress for the six large dams it manages, but says during high runoff years, flood control has been its main focus.

Ernst asked the Corps what regulations or laws are preventing it from “doing a better job” of protecting the basin. Major General Scott Spellmon said the Corps feels it is in compliance with a 1940s act on flood control.

Spellmon said the Corp's No. 1 priority throughout all of its projects is public safety and human life. Flood control has been its top priority over the last 13 months, he reiterated.

“Even if flood control were the only authorized purposes for these six projects and they were all empty, this [March flood] event still would have occurred,” Spellmon said.

The Corps is already working to close large levee breaches and is helping protect a water treatment facility in Glenwood. Spellmon said the Corps is in the early stages of revisiting some of the management recommendations made for the basin in the past. 

In an interview after the hearing, both Ernst and Grassley reiterated that flood control needs to be the Corps' No. 1 priority because peoples’ safety and lives are at stake. Responding to the Corps’ defense that they have been focused on flood control for the last 13 months, Grassley said he stands by his constituents.

“If I have to choose between what the Corps just told us and have been telling us for a long period of time compared to what the farmers and the people that live in the area and the people here who have been hurt, and hurt not just once, but several times, they would have a hard time selling that to the residents of Iowa and Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri,” Grassley said.

Grassley said he wants to get emergency funding to the Corps to fix up the damaged levees, but a lot more needs to be done.

“We’d also feel that better control of the existing dams would be a step in the right direction and that we ought to do that first,” Grassley said.

U.S. Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., has introduced a bill that would remove fish and wildlife from the Corp's list of eight authorized management purposes on the river and make flood control the top priority. Ernst said fish and wildlife are important, but, "is it more  important than the life and safety of human beings, their livelihoods? I would say that no, it's not a higher priority."

Katie Peikes was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio from 2018 to 2023. She joined IPR as its first-ever Western Iowa reporter, and then served as the agricultural reporter.