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Corps Of Engineers Plans Long-term Study Of Lower Missouri River System

Katie Peikes
U.S. Rep. Steve King and John Remus of the Army Corps of Engineers (left) engage in a dialogue at a Missouri River stakeholders meeting in Missouri Valley.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is planning to study the lower Missouri River and its tributaries from Sioux City, Ia. to St. Louis, Mo. to look at ways to reduce flood risks and improve infrastructure. 
Heavy rains last month from North and South Dakota and Montana triggered a third round of flooding along the Missouri River. People in parts of southwest Iowa have been out of their homes for over six months, since historic flooding hit the region in March.

Iowa’s 4th District Republican Rep. Steve King of Kiron and Republican State Rep. Jon Jacobsen of Council Bluffs called a meeting Wednesday in Missouri Valley with the Corps of Engineers, local mayors, emergency managers, farmers and others affected by flooding who live along the river in western Iowa and eastern Nebraska. The goal was to start a conversation about how towns and people along the Lower Missouri River Basin region from Sioux City to St. Louis, below the Corps’ six mainstem dams, can better protect themselves from high flows of water coming down the river, and how they can mitigate future flooding.

“How do we adjust this thing so we can mitigate these disasters that so many of you have suffered through multiple times over the last eight years? We’ve had a couple of really bad years out of eight years,” King said, referring also, to the 2011 flood.

The Corps revised its 2019 runoff projections for the upper basin after northern states in the basin received heavy rains last month. John Remus, chief of the Missouri River Basin Water Management Division for the Corps, said runoff for the upper basin is now projected at 61 million acre feet, which, if reached, ties with the record set in 2011.

“We have about 7.9 million acre feet of water, or just about half of our flood control storage left to evacuate in the system,” Remus said. “What that means from a discharge point of view is we need to be discharging about 55,000 cubic feet per second more than what is inflowing into the system.” 

"...That water hit so fast, it went and bounced back, and that's how we lost our town." -Carol Vinton, Mills County

The Corps is keeping releases from Gavins Point Dam in South Dakota at 80,000 cubic feet per second through the end of November, before dialing back for winter, Remus said. He estimates they'll be releasing 20,000 to 25,000 cubic feet per second of water out of the dam in the winter to evacuate more water under ice.

Southwest Iowa has been dealing with a compromised levee system since March, with over 40 breaches from Council Bluffs to the Kansas-Nebraska state line. Col. John Hudson, the Omaha District Commander for the Corps, said work to close the breaches is ongoing. Once the breaches are closed, the plan is to restore the levee system up to a 25-year level of protection by March of next year.

The long-term plan, Hudson said, is a study on the lower Missouri River and its tributaries from Sioux City to St. Louis. The study would look at ways to reduce flood risks, vulnerability and damages and improving infrastructure, according to the Corps. Solutions for future flooding go beyond beefing up levees, Hudson said. They could include establishing floodways and looking at drainage management, to "ultimately establish a more resilient system down the road."

“We have a similar melt event that we had in this last March, we’ll have similar impacts on the system,” Hudson said. “It was overtopped for four days and will have levees overtopped for four days again. It was all on unregulated tributaries.”

Hudson said a study could take three to five years, and they'll need the help of Congress. King later asked how many in the crowd of an estimated more than 100 people would be in favor of an expedited study. The majority of the people at the meeting raised their hands.

The Corps said it still needs to determine how broad the scope of the study will be.

Some people in the crowd who spoke during the meeting aired their grievances against the Corps and how it has handled the March flooding, claiming that the Corps had a lack in communication with local leaders. Carol Vinton, the chair for the Mills County Board of Supervisors, said 71 families in Pacific Junction want their properties bought out, which will lose the town and Mills County millions in tax revenue.

“Every time we think of the [flood] gates being up higher – and we understand Montana is still getting snow – we’re scared for next year,” Vinton said. “But maybe, maybe we can protect the families that lost everything.”

Vinton said she’d appreciate more communication from the Corps in the future.

“Because let me tell you, that water hit so fast, it went and bounced back, and that’s how we lost our town,” Vinton said.

She continued, “How many times can these people clean up and get hit again?”

King introduced a bill in 2011 directing the Corps to adjust its flood control storage space in the Missouri River Reservoir System, but opposition from recreational fishermen froze the bill, he said. King said he may bring it back to Congress in the future, adding in an interview after the meeting that he’d have to couple the bill with a request for some money for the Corps of Engineers to study the lower Missouri River and its tributaries.

“I want to make sure this river can contain all of the water that has ever run down it and not have this thing outside the levees,” King said.

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.