After months of sustained, historic Midwest flooding and criticism that the government bungled its management of the Missouri River, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Friday it has commissioned a study of its handling of the waterway.
Large sections of northwest Missouri and southwest Iowa remain underwater, and only in recent weeks have historic levels along the Missouri River begun to recede. Corps officials say levee breaks and other problems along the Missouri are contributing to a national flood repair bill for the corps that will likely top $2 billion.
Problems started June 1 when the corps began releasing massive amounts of water from upstream reservoirs that had filled to overflowing with record runoff from rain and heavy snowpack. The resulting torrent easily overmatched earthen levees along the river in Iowa and Missouri, tearing football field-sized holes in berms protecting thousands of acres of prime farmland and forcing the closure of heavily-traveled bridges and roads.
The corps' decision to review its handling of the waterway comes amid heavy criticism from government officials in downriver states, who have accused the agency of caring more about protecting river navigation and recreation at the northern reservoirs than controlling flooding further south.
Corps spokesman Steve Wright said a four-person review panel will begin work later this month, and include one hydrologist each from the National Weather Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service along with a retired Colorado State University professor of civil engineering. The panel is expected to finish its review no later than Dec. 2, he said. The corps anticipates the study will cost about $60,000.
Snowpack in the Rockies already was heavy when record May rainstorms in Montana, the Dakotas and part of Wyoming dumped about 7 inches of rain, causing half a million acre-feet per day of water to flow into the reservoirs for 11 days. The corps said that rainfall was impossible to predict and that it had no choice but to release vast amounts of water from its upstream reservoirs.
The agency denies that it favors any interests in its decisions to release water, and says with the Missouri River its hands were tied this year because of the rain and snow. Wright said the corps is limited in how much water it can release in winter because high water levels can cause ice jams, and he pointed out that the reservoirs still had storage space until the May rains.
"We didn't have any idea the animals would start lining up two by two in Montana when we went into the month of May," Wright said.
The agency's explanation of what led to this year's prolonged and widespread flooding has done little to stanch the flood of criticism directed at it from the worst-affected states.
Some of those whose homes were inundated have taken to describing the flooding as a "manmade disaster," suggesting the corps moved too slowly to release the water. Waiting too long, politicians and affected residents said, forced the corps to release massive amounts of water in a compact period and the levees stood little chance against it.
Former South Dakota Gov. Bill Janklow has been a vocal critic of the corps' handling of the waterway, calling the agency "slow-witted."
"I just think they are going to waste money," Janklow said Friday. "It's simple; there was too much water when the melt came. And I realize it rained more than they expected. We may have still had floods this year, but they wouldn't have been on the magnitude where we were looking for Noah to build an ark."
Not all lawmakers were so negative.
"I commend the corps for moving forward on this study and think it is very important for the corps to maximize water releases by early next year given that so many levees are in need of repair," said Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin.
People who live along the river generally contend that the water levels in the upstream reservoirs should be kept low so they can handle large influxes of runoff. Upstream, boating and fishing enthusiasts want higher levels in the reservoir to support recreation. Likewise, barge owners want to make sure the water level is high enough that water can be released through the summer and fall to keep their vessels afloat.
Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt has said flood control should be the first priority and that he would be talking with colleagues about reviewing the river's management.
"We must work towards a river system that is focused on flood control and the protection of people and property," Blunt said Friday. "I am working closely with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to find solutions and refocus on the basics of river management in order to achieve those goals."
Wright bristles at suggestions that the corps favors recreation or wildlife above people.
"I answered letters that said we were criminally negligent. Or we see articles written that we purposefully flooded the heartland," Wright said. "Give me a break."
Wright said the agency is "very interested in having a full independent review by subject-matter experts" and that outside reviews are conducted when there are "unusual circumstances," such as after Hurricane Katrina sent water flowing over the top of New Orleans' floodwalls.