The Missouri River has subsided for now, but it is almost sure to come back with a vengeance. This is a conclusion that seems inescapable for thousands of Missourians who live, work and farm along the Missouri River. Frustration with the increasing frequency and severity of flood events over the past 30 years may have finally reached a boiling point among farmers and policymakers. There seems to be a growing realization that something needs to change in order to prevent or reduce future flooding, and it needs to happen now.
In the wake of the March floods, elected officials and local leaders have worked tirelessly to decide what actions we must take that can lessen flooding threats. A handful of actions are gaining steam among farmers, advocacy groups and community leaders. Some of these ideas have broad support among Missouri’s political leaders but will face steep opposition from others.
The idea with broadest consensus is that the Missouri River should be managed for flood prevention first and foremost. When originally designed, Congress authorized the Missouri River management system to provide consistent flood control and navigation. Over the years, Congress added six new authorized purposes: hydroelectric power, irrigation, water supply, water quality, recreation and fish and wildlife (including preservation of endangered species).
These eight purposes push and pull against each other in what has become an impossible balancing match. Many residents along the river believe that river management has become far too focused on the fish and wildlife preservation mission, spending millions of dollars on projects to encourage fish to spawn at the expense of proper flood control. Since the additional purposes were added to the Corps of Engineers’ river operations manual, flooding has become far more common and severe.
Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst testified in Iowa before a field hearing of the U.S. Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee on April 17. In his testimony, he said, “While we support science-based species recovery efforts, any planned habitat construction projects that increase flood risk should be discontinued immediately.”
A broad coalition of agricultural and river advocacy groups recently asked the Missouri Congressional delegation to pass a bill explicitly stating that flood control is the primary purpose of the system. Congressman Sam Graves has introduced a bill that would accomplish this, H.R. 2174, but it needs to add substantial support from beyond Missouri to become law.
As Mr. Hurst said at the Senate hearing, “Flood control and protection of human life and property must be paramount in any discussions regarding Missouri River management. … To do the same things and expect better results is the triumph of hope over experience.”
We cannot stand idly by as floods continue to ravage our land. We must encourage our elected officials to take action now to protect our farms and communities from additional preventable disasters.
Eric Bohl is Director of Public Affairs for Missouri Farm Bureau, the state’s largest farm organization.