Governors meet to avert another round of flooding
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Governors from several states affected by this year's historic overflow of the Missouri River were set to meet Friday to discuss ways to avoid a repeat of the destructive floodwaters that submerged thousands of acres of farmland and forced residents from their homes.
Some said they would push for better flood control, but experts warn that broader, long-term flood prevention will require economic sacrifices from individual states and a new approach to controlling the nation's longest river.
The governors of North Dakota, South Dakota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska and Kansas, along with Iowa's lieutenant governor and a representative for Wyoming's governor, will meet in Omaha, Neb., to discuss options for keeping the river in its banks.
The Missouri, which travels 2,341 miles, has been overflowing for months because of heavy Rocky Mountain snowpack and a rainy spring, rerouting motorists and trains and wreaking havoc on home and farm owners. Omaha and other cities have spent millions of dollars to protect airports, water treatment plants and other facilities.
"This is a 1,700-mile flood — extraordinary — and we're all frustrated with it, and so our focus ... is going to be to get a united front as Missouri River basin governors on the operation of the Missouri River reservoir system," Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback said Thursday.
Releasing water from reservoirs earlier and allowing the river to expand naturally would solve many of the problems. However, doing so could push fishermen out of Montana's prized waterways earlier, force farmers from the Dakotas to Missouri to give up land for floodplains or limit barges hauling grain and other goods along the river.
Holding less water in upstream dams would mean less water for boating and fishing in upriver states, fewer reserves during summer dry periods that could be hard for wildlife, and worsen drought conditions, said Tim Cowman, director of the Vermillion, S.D.-based Missouri River Institute, which studies the river basin.
"Eventually, nature will overpower what we've done to protect ourselves from the river," Cowman said.
Officials must debate, among other things, whether to widen the channels or lower the spring target levels in reservoirs.
In interviews ahead of the meeting, governors and other state officials said they expect to unite around safeguards such as levee repairs and improved river-level gauges. Differing priorities between upstream and downstream states have long been hard to bridge, but Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman said the scale of this year's flooding should convince states to find common ground.
"I think you're going to see a more united front than ever before between the upstream states and the downstream states," Heineman said.
Governors have promised to work together without much progress, said J. Michael Hayden, executive director of the Missouri River Association of States and Tribes. Hayden pointed to a report written after the river flooded in 1993 that warned of too many roads, railroads and other infrastructure in the flood plain.
"Nobody really listened," Hayden said. "Since then, there's been tremendous development all the way from Pierre to Bismarck to Dakota Dunes to Sioux City. Of course, now, it's devastating."
And it may be difficult to bridge differences in the states' priorities. In Montana, Gov. Brian Schweitzer said he tried to warn downstream states about Montana's huge snowpack this year but ultimately, downstream flooding isn't his problem.
"It's not about flood control in Montana," Schweitzer said. "It's recreation, hydroelectricity. It's about irrigation."
Farming advocates say their industry has taken a backseat and want levees repaired to protect farmland. Iowa farmer Leo Ettleman, spokesman for Farmers for Responsible River Management, said flooding this year ruined more than two-thirds of the 2,300 acres he farms with his son.
"The entire system was built for flood control," he said. "Fish and wildlife issues have really dominated the scene in recent years. Agriculture didn't have a big enough voice. This recreation stuff is great, but there's got to be a happy medium here."
The Missouri River ran largely untamed until the 1950s, when dams were built as part of a nationwide effort to control and harness the power of waterways. When Congress approved plans for the dam, lawmakers required the Army Corps of Engineers to maintain the river for flood control, navigation, irrigation, power generation, municipal and industrial water supplies, recreation and wildlife preservation.
Mike Cooper, owner of the Cooper's Landing River Port Marina in Columbia, Mo., said changing river flow could hurt his business. However, he said he is willing to make sacrifices if the burden was shared up and down the river, though he maintains past post-flood meetings have yielded few results.
"It will be just like it's been in the past," Cooper said. "They'll form some committee, make a few recommendations, and then it'll become a lost memory and nothing will happen. Everybody takes such a narrow view."
Plus, interest could wane if river levels drop.
Corps spokeswoman Sarah Rivette cautioned against demanding sweeping changes based on one flood season. She recalled not so long ago when the issue was low river flows, not flooding.
"Four years ago, we barely had enough water to do anything," she said. "Now we're at the complete opposite end."
Associated Press writer John Hanna contributed from Topeka, Kan.