Iowa gov. proposes downstream Missouri River group

July 7, 2011 - 10:14 AM

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Gov. Terry Branstad has urged governors in three states to consider pulling out of a Missouri River association because of the Army Corps of Engineers' long-term management of the river and what he believes is a tendency to favor upstream states, according to a letter provided by his office.

The letter, which was requested by The Associated Press under Iowa's open records law, shows that Branstad also has urged the governors of Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska to discuss forming a new group of downstream states. The four states now are members of the Missouri River Association of States and Tribes, which was formed in 2006 to advise federal agencies and which also includes Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming, as well as American Indian tribes in the river basin.

Public officials and residents have criticized the corps for its management of a series of Missouri River reservoirs in North Dakota and South Dakota that became swollen by spring rains and an enormous Rocky Mountain snowpack, but a Branstad aide noted that he sent his letter to other governors in April. That was more than a month before the corps opted to begin massive releases of water that raised the Missouri to historic levels and forced residents along the river to erect temporary barriers and in some cases, to abandon their homes.

"As governor of Iowa, my duty is to constantly pursue opportunities in the best interest of this state, as such Iowa is currently evaluating whether to maintain its membership in MORAST," Branstad wrote in the April 22 letter, referring to the Missouri River association.

Branstad suggested to the other governors that they consider establishing a Missouri River Coalition of Downstream States that would include Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas. These states, he argued, have a shared interest in river management and could join to seek common goals from the federal government.

Branstad wrote that the corps' current management of the river is focused too heavily on recreational uses at the upstream reservoirs. He stated that the organization "has not represented or balanced the interests of its members, in particular the downstream states as it persists in taking a narrow focus on upstream recreational interests."

Monique Farmer, a corps spokeswoman in Omaha, Neb., said officials have based their decisions about water releases on a detailed manual developed over 14 years of study beginning in 1989.

"We operate within those parameters," said Farmer. "We hold annual operational plan meetings in each of those states."

Farmer said the enormity of this year's flooding is virtually certain to force an intense review of virtually every decision that was made.

"We realize that 2011 has been a new datapoint for us," said Farmer. "We intend to conduct a full-scale assessment to determine what, if any, changes we can make to our operation."

Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers said the Iowa governor reached his conclusion for the need for better downstream representation before this year's historic flooding, but he wouldn't pursue the matter until after the flooding recedes.

"There really hasn't been much movement on it since the flooding," Centers said.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback didn't respond directly to Branstad's request, but said in a telephone interview that he had his own worries about the management of the river and wants a full review of all decisions that were made this year.

"We need a 9-11 style commission to look back at how the system was operated this past winter and ask, are we operating it effectively for everybody downstream?" Brownback said.

Although the governors agreed they needed to wait for the floodwater to recede before making changes, they seemed interested in looking into the matter.

We have received and reviewed the letter," said Jen Rae Hein, a spokeswoman for Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman. "Discussions are on hold because of the flooding as the governor is focused on helping the citizens of Nebraska."

Scott Holste, a spokesman for Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, said Nixon was taking a similar approach and was eager to ask questions about the corps' approach.

"Once the floodwaters recede we'll have plenty of time to determine how and why the corps reservoirs reached this critical point," said Holste.