On December 23, 2011, President Obama signed into a law an emergency appropriation for the Missouri Basin. On the face it, the multi-million-dollar appropriation appeared to be a godsend for residents of the Missouri Valley, because it allows the Corps to rebuild its damaged Missouri River hydraulic system of dams, levees, and navigational structures. For example, in the coming year, the Army plans on spending $51.9 million to repair Garrison Dam and another $10.5 million on the rehabilitation of Gavin’s Point Dam. Fixing the big dams is a proper expenditure of federal funds. If the dams remained in a state of disrepair, they would be far more likely to fail during the next flood. But the expenditure of untold millions on the lower valley’s defunct navigation channel and improperly aligned levee system represents an abject waste of federal dollars.
The Corps’ navigation channel from Ponca, Nebraska, to the river’s mouth is so narrow that it has never had the conveyance capacity to safely carry away high flows. Consequently, when last year’s floodwaters entered that channel, the Missouri quickly overtopped its man-made banks and spread out across the valley floor, inflicting hundreds of millions of dollars in damages to urban areas, infrastructure, and agricultural land. The overflowing river also destroyed countless channelization structures. South of Sioux City, the Missouri punched cavernous holes in the navigation channel. By breaking out of its riprapped cage, the Missouri naturally widened itself and increased its ability to safely haul away a future flood. But at this very moment, the Corps is working to put the Missouri back inside its constricted navigation channel. In an act of utter folly, the Army is spending your tax dollars to make the Missouri flood-prone again.
The Corps is also spending astronomical sums of money to rapidly rebuild the lower valley’s levees. Surprisingly, the new levees are being built at the same locations as the old levees. This is a problem because the old levees sat too close to the Missouri. As a result, the old levees compressed the river’s flood flows, forcing the river up and then over the tops of the levees. The new levees are going to do the same thing during the next flood, at great cost to society.
On March 19, 2012, Brigadier General John McMahon, who heads the Northwestern Division, told a St. Louis audience that he did not feel good about rebuilding the navigation channel or the misaligned levee system, both of which fostered flooding last summer. Although the Army is a shrewd political player, it does take orders from Congress, and congressional representatives from the lower basin want the status quo reestablished along the lower river, even if that status quo substantially increases the probability of catastrophic flooding in the years ahead. Of course, lower basin representatives are acting at the behest of the Farm Bureau Federation, the Corn Grower’s Association, and the miniscule Missouri River barge industry. Bottomland farmers want to grow corn, which is now fetching record prices, on every conceivable acre in the lower valley, while the tiny barge industry wants to float one or two barges per year (that is the actual number) on the river north of Kansas City.
Now if you think the madness that has seized the Lower Basin does not affect the Upper Basin, well, think again. Reconstructing the navigation channel and the levee system of old means that the lower valley will continue to lack the natural water storage capacity to absorb a future super flood. So how is the Lower Basin going to protect itself from floods in this new era of climate change and a more voluminous Missouri? It is going to seek additional flood storage in the Dakota and Montana reservoirs. This is the reason for the recent U.S. House bill sponsored by representative Steve King (R-IA). At the urging of the farm lobby, King wants the Upper Basin to provide for the protection of the blatantly self-interested farmers in the lower valley, who are unwilling to give the Lower Missouri even one acre of additional space to hold floodwater.
If the Upper Basin wants to stop the Lower Basin’s efforts to drain the upstream reservoirs, it better act now, and I am not kidding, I mean today! Because once the navigation channel is resurrected, and the levees are fully rebuilt at their previous locations, it will be too late. The Army and its Lower Basin backers are rushing the reconstruction projects to present the Upper Basin with a fait accompli. The Lower Basin will use the existence of its flood-prone hydraulic system to justify the lowering of the Dakota and Montana reservoirs. And we know that lower reservoir levels will reduce hydropower output and harm the reservoir fishery, which are both so vital to the Upper Basin economy.