The Missouri Will Flood Again

The Missouri River is going to flood again. No one knows when. But a major flood could arrive as early as this winter; or it may not occur for another ten years.

When the next big flood reaches the river valley south of Sioux City, Iowa, it is going to behave as the Missouri did during the floods of 2011 and 2019. It’s going to blow holes in the levees on either side of the valley, tear apart the Corps’ navigation channel, burrow cavernous holes in the valley floor, and throw filthy brown water down many a main street.

I hate to say it, but this dire prediction is going to happen, I can guarantee it, because since last year’s deluge, the Corps, at the farm lobby’s behest, has rebuilt the lower valley’s levee system without any significant setbacks. This means the next big flood, constricted by the recently rebuilt levees, will be unable to spread out to lower its crest. Instead, the Missouri, just like in 2011 and 2019, will be forced up and over the levees, with disastrous consequences for anyone and anything caught in the path of the advancing waters.

Now that the Corps is nearly done spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars rebuilding the very same levee system that failed so spectacularly in the past, it, (along with the state of Missouri’s GOP congressional representatives and senators, corporate farmers, and port authorities), wants to spend an additional $200 million dollars of your money to rebuild the navigation channel from the river’s mouth to Sioux City.

In recent years, the Missouri’s high flows have damaged or destroyed fifty to seventy percent of the navigation channel’s wing-dams, L-shaped dikes, and revetments. Those training structures redirect the river’s waters into a very tight 300-foot-wide channel. If the river is to be made navigable again for a handful of barges, thousands of crumbling training structures have to be rebuilt – and according to Sen. Roy Blunt, Sen. Josh Hawley, and Rep. Sam Graves – they have to be rebuilt as soon as possible.

The Corps knows a long-held secret about the navigation channel – it fosters flooding. Its wing-dams, dikes, and revetments act in a manner similar to levees. They constrict the river’s flood flows, prevent the river from widening out and lowering its flood crests, and force the Missouri’s floodwaters up and over the river’s banks. Brigadier General Peter Helmlinger, Commander of the Northwestern Division, the organization charged with managing the Mighty Mo, came as close as anyone in the Corps has ever come to confessing the truth about the navigation channel when he said last year that along the Lower Missouri the Corps needed to: “increase the volume of water that can be carried safely down the river.”

So why is the Corps, and so many individuals from the state of Missouri, pushing for the rapid reconstruction of the navigation channel, even though it contributes to flooding? Well, there are a host of reasons. Some make sense. Others are just downright unethical.

1) Floods keep the Corps and its officers and civilian employees in business. After every Missouri River flood, the Corps receives hundreds of millions of dollars to repair the obsolete levee system and defunct navigation channel. Thus, the Corps has no financial incentive to make the Missouri less flood-prone.

2) In hard economic times every dollar counts. Even though $200 million dollars is chump change in this day and age of trillion-dollar federal stimulus packages, the construction dollars spent repairing a rarely-used navigation channel will funnel some money into the rural communities hurt by last year’s floods and this year’s recession.

3) This November, the Democrats have a very good chance of maintaining their majority in the House of Representatives and gaining control of the Senate and White House. If that happens, they may block funding for the repair of the navigation channel and instead insist on spending federal monies on projects that actually reduce the flood threat – such as increasing Conservation Reserve Program acres, reestablishing wetlands, and widening the Missouri’s channel area. This may explain why the Missourians are urging the Corps to quickly repair the navigation channel.

4) The navigation channel provides the legal basis through the Commerce Clause of the Constitution for the Corps’ authority along the Missouri. If the channel falls into disrepair and is no longer navigable, the Corps’ authority along the lower river could be challenged by other institutions with a stake in the river’s future – such as the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

5) The navigation channel and the need to maintain its nine-foot depth ensures that the state of Missouri receives a large amount of the water stored in the upstream reservoirs. Without the navigation channel, the Missourians might have to share that water with others, such as the people of North Dakota. Furthermore, with a drought set to intensify across the Upper Midwest and Northern Plains, Missouri’s farmers, power plant operators, and those who work in the tiny Missouri River barge industry want to secure a water supply if the drought worsens in 2021.

6) The rock-lined banks of the navigation channel allow Missouri Valley farmers to grow crops within feet of the river. Focused on maximizing crop yields and maximizing profits, these same farmers refuse to forfeit any land to a flood control project that would entail widening the river’s channel area.

The Missouri River will flood again. So, the best we as a society can do is take steps to reduce the odds, as well as the financial costs, of catastrophic flooding. Unfortunately, by rebuilding the Lower Valley’s archaic levee system, and by seeking the reconstruction of the navigation channel, the Corps, and a group of shamelessly self-interested Missourians, are doing neither.

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