On June 9, 2011, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) stated that Congress may need to hold investigative hearings on the causes of the present flood along the Missouri River. He remarked, “It never hurts to take an in-depth look at why we’re in the situation we’re at on the Missouri River.” With the possibility of such a high-profile investigation looming, and the 2012 presidential and congressional election campaigns already heating up, politicians and their affiliated parties are going to seek political advantage by blaming the disaster on their opponents and their allies. It’s all so very American and so very disturbing.
Taking the lead in the blame game, Nebraska GOP senate candidate Don Stenberg remarked yesterday that any investigation of the flood needs to look at the Obama Administration’s role in possibly exacerbating the situation. More specifically, Stenberg wants to know whether Obama’s people ordered the Army to keep the reservoirs high, thus reducing the reservoirs’ ability to stem the high flows coming down from Montana. Stenberg’s implication that Obama may be to blame for the disaster is a crude and deceitful attempt to ingratiate himself with Nebraska’s overwhelmingly GOP, rural electorate. Governor Terry Branstad (R-IA) sought to preempt any potential criticism of his own history with the river and the Army by claiming that he has been critical of the Corps’ work along the river for years. He noted, “I have felt for a long time that the downstream states have not been protected in the flood-mitigation work of the Corps of Engineers.” Branstad wants Iowa residents to know that he is now on the side of the victims in this flood. Interestingly, Branstad made no mention of the need to investigate the part played by the navigation channel in worsening the flooding below Ponca, Nebraska, where the wingdams and revetments begin to narrow the river.
A congressional investigation and hearing into the role of the Army along the Missouri is long overdue. But before all the blame for the Great Missouri River Flood of 2011 is placed solely on the shoulders of the Army, or on President Obama, or on the EPA, or the least tern and piping plover, (or on the United Nations – yesterday I spoke with a Sioux Cityan who blamed some kind of secret U.N. government for the flood) it is important to know a few things about the navigation channel south of Ponca and the Army’s mandate to maintain it.
First, let me make it clear: the navigation channel is a primary cause of this flood. The river is so confined in the navigation channel that it does not have the capacity to safely carry away the Missouri’s high flows. That is an indisputable fact. No one can challenge it.
Second, since the 1950s, the Army has operated the upstream Dakota reservoirs to support the navigation channel. It has held spring run-off in those reservoirs in order to provide the water for a nine-foot channel depth from Sioux City to the river’s mouth between March and November of each year. That too is an indisputable fact. Thus, the Army’s legal obligation to maintain flows in the navigation channel partially explains why it kept reservoir levels up in the past several months.
Third, the Army has spent millions through the years to keep the river tied down in the navigation channel. Since 1944 and the congressional passage of the Pick-Sloan Plan for Missouri River Development, Congress, through its annual budgetary process, has supported the Army’s efforts to maintain the navigation channel along the Missouri. Congress has also repeatedly blocked any decommissioning of the navigation channel to aid fish and wildlife or lessen the flood risk south of Ponca. Through the years, the biggest backers of the navigation channel have been lower valley politicians. Senators Kit Bond (R-MO), Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Governor Jay Nixon (R-MO) have been three of the navigation channel’s staunchest supporters. Of course, in America, politicians are elected by the people. So ultimately, responsibility for the present state of the Missouri rests with the men and women who put the Blunts and the Bonds and the Nixons and their like into office. Who are those voters? Answer: Missouri Valley farmers, businessmen, power plant owners/operators, real estate brokers, land developers, and the owners of McMansions at such places as the Dakota Dunes. These interests have wanted the navigation channel maintained for a host of reasons – least of all being real barge navigation.
Farmers want the navigation channel because it allows them to plant corn (now at record-high prices) within feet of the Missouri River itself. Back in the 1950s, farmers also acquired the accreted land that formed behind the Army’s pile dikes and revetments. They paid nothing for that land. They now want the river held in place so they can continue to profit from that earlier government land give-away. Coal-burning power plant owners/operators want the river kept in its confined and regulated channel in order to continue to draw steady, free water from the stream to cool their facilities. The power plants are dependent on a stable river for their profitability. Land developers want the river held at bay so they can buy the river lowlands cheap and sell them high – which is what they did at Dakota Dunes. Homeowners want the navigation channel maintained so their supersized houses don’t become victims of a meandering river. There are powerful interests behind the navigation channel. Along with the Army, these political and economic elites hold the greatest responsibility for the Great Flood of 2011. Unfortunately, as is so often the case in America, the rest of us will have to pay the cost for their actions.
In the mid-1990s, I attended a meeting in Onawa, Iowa, between local farmers and representatives of the Army. The Army held the meeting to hear the public’s views on the management of the river. The farmer’s loudly voiced their opposition to any changes in the navigation channel that might impinge on maximum crop production. When the meeting was about half over, then-Governor Terry Branstad entered the small auditorium to rousing applause by the assembled audience. He quickly marched up to the stage through a throng of supporters, took the podium from an Army officer, grabbed the microphone, and told the crowd that the Army must not make any changes in the navigation channel. It had to remain as is. He received a standing ovation from his rural western Iowa constituents for his words.