In mid-October 2011, Brigadier General John McMahon, head of the Northwestern Division, wrote a widely circulated op-ed piece on the future management of the Missouri River. In the article, the general acknowledged that the Army’s Missouri River hydraulic system of dams, levees, and channelization structures failed to halt this year’s flood and it would not stop the next super flood. He wrote, “We know it [the hydraulic system] cannot handle the most extreme of flood events.”
McMahon stated that additional inputs of technology (such as dams or levees) would not solve the flooding problem along the Missouri. Instead, the Missouri basin needed a new, non-structural flood mitigation program. Such a program should include new zoning laws limiting or prohibiting construction in the floodplain, property easements to allow the river access to its former floodplain during high flow episodes, and the repositioning of levees. The Missouri, according to McMahon, must have more room to maneuver.
McMahon’s bold policy statement presented the public with a series of low-cost, long-term, effective solutions to flooding along the Mighty Mo. Not surprisingly, the general confronted an immediate and severe backlash from Missouri Valley farmers, including Tom Waters – president of the Missouri Levee and Drainage District Association. Waters wrote, “I was sickened to hear Corps leaders talk about non-structural alternatives.”
Earlier, Blake Hurst of the Missouri Farm Bureau summarized what Missouri Valley farmers wanted from the Army, “I just hope that, when the river goes down enough, we can repair levees and start getting back to where we were….” “Back to where we were” meant plowing and planting corn within mere feet of the Missouri’s edge. To valley farmers, the river represented the enemy. There would be no territorial concessions in the war against the Missouri.
Faced with a firestorm of criticism from lower basin farmers and their political representatives, McMahan reversed himself. Beginning in early November, he made a series of public statements sure to please farmers, the miniscule Missouri River barge industry, and the lame politicians who placate both groups. On November 3, 2011, the general told a Sioux City audience that the Army would rebuild the lower river’s navigation channel, which had been damaged during the flood of 2011. McMahon made this commitment knowing full well that the constricted barge channel contributed to flooding south of Ponca, Nebraska. Why make such a pledge? Because a reconstructed navigation channel, with its stabilized banks, will allow farmers to once again grow crops in the floodplain or as Hurst had said, it’ll enable farmers to go “back to where we were.”
In late December, McMahon asserted that the Army will repair damaged levees as quickly as possible. He made no mention of altering the alignment of some levees or pulling other levees back from the river – which is what he said needed to be done back in October. Unfortunately, it appears as though the Army is going to rebuild the very same levee system that failed so miserably this year.
The Army’s intention to reestablish the status quo along the Missouri is good news for select group of valley farmers, but it is bad news for the rest of us. When the next flood bounces out of the flood prone navigation channel and smashes the rebuilt levee system, the American taxpayer will have to pay for the resulting damages.
McMahon once told me that he considered himself a leader. As a leader, he had to make difficult decisions – decisions that sought to reconcile the conflicting interests within the basin. Sometimes, one interest had to lose for another to gain. I told him that I understood how challenging that must be for him. He looked at me and responded with a silent nod.
Yet, in light of his recent public pronouncements, I now wonder whether the basin’s conflicting interests have left McMahon confused about the future management of the river. His effort to satisfy the irrational and dangerous demands of the farm lobby and its political representatives has diverted him from a management path – laid out in his October article – that would have provided the public with a genuine means of reducing the risk of future floods along the Missouri.
For me, McMahon’s flip-flopping brings to mind the American television game show, “To Tell the Truth.” On the show, a panel of celebrities asked three individuals (who all claimed to be the same person) a series of questions. The questions were to determine who was in fact the actual person and who were the two imposters. At the end of the questioning, and after the celebrities had identified who they believed had told the truth, the real person was asked to stand. After some hesitation, he/she stood for the television audience. I ask – will the real Brigadier General John McMahon please stand up? And will you take a firm stand against the farm lobby and its land policies, which are putting the entire valley at risk of another deluge?