Senators press Corps officials on Missouri River flood prevention priorities

Four U.S. Senators questioned the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer officials about Missouri River flood protection priorities during a field hearing in Glenwood on Wednesday.

Iowa Republican Senator Joni Ernst hosted the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee field hearing in the wake of widespread flooding throughout southwest Iowa. The hearing focused on the Corps' management of the Missouri River basin flooding.

“I want to emphasize that the Missouri [flooding] is not just in the past tense," Ernst said. "This is an ongoing disaster. People are hurting, flood waters are still in homes and neighborhoods and lives have yet to be rebuilt.”

Major General Scott Spellmon (left) responds to a question during a field hearing in Glenwood on Wednesday.

Major General Scott Spellmon (left) responds to a question during a field hearing in Glenwood on Wednesday.

The flood waters have caused an estimated $1.6 billion in damages in Iowa and another $1.5 billion in other Midwestern states.

"Having your farmland, homes and businesses flooded out every few years cannot become a fact of life," Ernst said. "This trend of flood and rebuild, flood and rebuild must end.”

Corps officials contend that little could have been done to avert the flash flooding that toppled and breached the levee systems. Major General Scott Spellmon, the Deputy Commanding General for Civil and Emergency Operations, told the senators and about 250 attendees at the hearing that the Corps' primary focus in times of flooding is public safety.

"The number one priority of the Corps in all of our operations and all our projects remains life and public safety," he said. "The damage to the levees in the region is extensive. Many levees across the entire region from Council Bluffs to Kansas City overtopped during this flood."

At least 32 levee systems were completely underwater during the floods and as of Wednesday morning they counted 114 breaches in those levees, Maj. Gen. Spellmon said. Army Corps officials are working to close the breaches and regain flood protection for cities and farms in the Missouri River basin.

One of the more substantial breaches is in a levee that protected the city of Hamburg, he said The breach will require nearly one million cubic yards of material to complete the initial emergency closure.

"This is equivalent to approximately 100,000 dump truck loads of material," Maj. Gen. Spellmon said.

He told the senators that flood events were widespread across the country during the winter and spring months of 2019.

"At one point over 300 river gauges indicated a flood stage at various locations across the United States," he said. "This year’s flood season has been challenging."

Priorities questioned

John Remus, chief of the Missouri River Basin Water Management Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Civil Works), Northwestern Division, said considerations for endangered species along the Missouri River "did not influence our reservoir operation during this time" but the senators and witnesses at the hearing questioned that statement.

Leo Ettleman, an Iowa Soybean Association member from Sidney, gave comments and answered questions during the field hearing. 

Leo Ettleman, an Iowa Soybean Association member from Sidney, gave comments and answered questions during the field hearing. 

"For years I have worked with my downstream Missouri River colleagues to make flood control the number one priority of the Corps in its management of the river," Iowa Republican Charles Grassley said during his opening statement. "Protection of life and personal property should take precedence over recreation and experiments that may or may not help endangered species and the other six functions identified in the Master Manual."

Grassley reminded those in attendance that last year a federal claims judge ruled in a mass action lawsuit of 372 plaintiffs from Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, and Kansas that the Corps’ changes to the river “had the effect of raising the Missouri River surface elevations in periods of high flows.” The court found that since 2007, the flooding has been among the worst in the history of the river and that the Corps’ changes in the management of the river caused or contributed to the flooding.

"It seems to me that misguided decisions and misplaced priorities have eclipsed common sense," Grassley said. "A little more Midwestern common sense might have protected local communities, millions of bushels of grain, and tens of thousands of acres of farmland."

Leo Ettleman, an Iowa Soybean Association member from Sidney, gave comments and answered questions during the field hearing. A levee breach near Percival last month flooded Ettleman's fields and damaged grain stored in bins. Flood damage to his family farm in 2011 led him to work with others in the area to organize the group Responsible River Management.

The group has tried to forge working relationships with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and numerous other stakeholders. They have also worked with the Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee.

"In my opinion, the 2019 flooding and all flooding since 2004 has been caused by the Corps’ change in the way it manages the river pursuant to the Missouri River Recovery Program (MRRP) for the purpose of benefiting the basin ecosystem and fish and wildlife over the priorities of flood control.”

Ettleman contends the 2004 change in river management protocol has led to an increased frequency and severity of flooding in the Missouri River basin.

"The committee should view the 2019 flooding and all flooding since 2004 as being continuous flooding caused by the Corps’ implementation of the MRRP," Ettleman said.

The MRRP, according to Ettleman, changed the management of the reservoir system, especially the volume and timing of the release, and the volume in the channel due to control structures. Furthermore, he said the Corps’ management reconnected the river to the flood plain resulting in flooding that he believes would not have occurred otherwise.

Disaster relief

ISA Director of Policy Development Michael Dolch commended Grassley and Ernst for shedding light on the devastation and recovery effort along the Missouri River. According to Dolch, the ISA opposes policy in the Master Water Control Manual that would cause seasonal flooding or restrict barge traffic on the Missouri River.

"With federal disaster aid hung up, this week’s field hearing came at a critical time," Dolch said. "We will continue to engage government agencies, policymakers and other stakeholders to help deliver relief, and ultimately, an improved flood control system.”

Congress failed to pass a disaster relief package to provide funding for citizens impacted by flooding last week prior to a two-week break. Ernst said that assistance is at least another week away but she is optimistic that Congress will pass the funding.

"We have an immediate need for people to receive disaster assistance," Ernst said. "Because of the low property values in the Midwest, we are often the last ones to receive funding from the federal government. Hopefully, we can get a movement of enough senators that we can take this [information] back and make changes."

New York Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said all Americans deserve assistance when faced with disasters like this.

"It is Congress’ job to pay for flood damage here and I fully support doing that," Gillibrand said during the field hearing. "I’m going to fight to make sure that you get every dollar you need here in Iowa just as I would fight to make sure every American citizen, whether they live in my state of New York, or Puerto Rico or anywhere in the Midwest, get the disaster funding they need."

Kansas Republican  Senator Jerry Moran said he hopes his colleagues in the Senate approve an emergency supplemental funding bill with money directed to fixing the levees impacted in the Missouri River basin.

"People have built their lives around that flood protection. The value of their land is determined by that flood protection and if they don't repair the levees then these landowners no longer have a livelihood along the Missouri River," Moran said.




Federal officials tour Missouri River flooding

As federal and state agriculture officials toured flood damage from the Missouri River, it became evident that recovery can’t start until flood waters recede.

Nearly two weeks after a dangerous mix of heavy rain, melting snow and frozen ground caused levees to topple and cities and farms to flood, the area continues to see large volumes of water push into the Missouri River basin.

Federal officials toured Hamburg and other communities in Fremont County Thursday to survey damage from Missouri River flood waters.

Federal officials toured Hamburg and other communities in Fremont County Thursday to survey damage from Missouri River flood waters.

“This flood is still happening," Jeff Jorgenson, an Iowa Soybean Association district director and Fremont County farmer said. "We have receded some water but we still have huge amounts of inflow of water into this area. It’s a long ways from being done. This could go on for a few more weeks.”

Jorgensen and other Fremont County farmers welcomed U.S. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary Bill Northey, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig and other officials to Hamburg on Thursday to tour damage caused by the Missouri River flooding.

"One of the challenges is that right now we see water," Northey said while looking at a flooded area of Hamburg while heavy rain fell. "You don’t know how much of a mess is underneath all of that water. Once that water recedes, there will be an awful lot of expense before they can get back to farming."

The Missouri River flooding was triggered by a combination of a "bomb cyclone" storm that impacted the Midwest the week of March 11, a rapid melting snowpack and already saturated ground. Now two weeks later, record amounts of water continue to flow into the area through levee breaches caused by flash flooding.

Mike Stenzel shared his story with government officials and news reporters yesterday. A third-generation farmer, Stenzel farms 2,500 acres of land along the Missouri River with his son Michael along with another 1,200 acres east of Hamburg.

"There is $905,000 worth of grain sitting down there underwater right now,” Mike Stenzel said. “The beans were sold. So now we have to come up with the money to pay them off to make the contract good. What we had in the bins was going to allow us to farm for another year. That is going to take a big hit.”

USDA Under Secretary Bill Northey about damage his farm sustained from Missouri River flooding.

USDA Under Secretary Bill Northey about damage his farm sustained from Missouri River flooding.

The Stenzels are among 31 growers in Fremont County with grain in storage, over 390,000 bushels of soybeans along with 1.25 million bushels of corn have been potentially destroyed, with total crop losses estimated at $7.3 million. That number could increase as flood waters retreat.

"In 2011, we lost 23 grain bins, two houses, three machine sheds and a shop," Mike Stenzel said. "We didn’t get a cent for any of it. We’ve had floods here before but nothing like this one. It is detrimental to our financial situation and whether we will be farming another year.”

Mike Stenzel said they have some flood insurance but doesn't believe his grain will be covered.

Jorgenson is worried about damage to the 750 acres of land he farms in the Missouri River valley but considers himself fortunate compared to others. When the water recedes, he expects to deal with large amounts of debris, sand and deep ruts caused by erosion. He was able to move grain from storage bins before floodwaters inundated his fields.

"For some of these farmers, 100 percent of their grain was stored," Jorgenson said. "It was 100 percent of their production. When that turns completely to zero, farmers understand the impact. That’s where it is at right now. That’s the message I want to get out. That’s the impact of this flood.”

Northey told the farmers that he would take two messages back to his boss, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. First, farmers will need help to recover, and, second, changes are needed in how the Missouri River is managed to prevent future flooding.

"Each of these (floods) take a big bite out of their economics in a time that is pretty tough," he said. "You hurt for them. You have folks that have been here for generations."

President Donald Trump granted Gov. Kim Reynolds’ request for a Presidential Major Disaster Declaration on March 23. The declaration makes assistance available to homeowners, renters, businesses, public entities, and select nonprofit organizations in 56 counties that have been severely impacted by recent flooding along the Missouri River and other parts of the state.

The declaration by the President makes available the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) Individual Assistance Program for five counties, which provides aid to eligible homeowners, renters, and businesses. Residents in Fremont, Harrison, Mills, Monona, and Woodbury counties are eligible to apply for this program, regardless of income.

Individuals and business owners who sustained losses in the designated area can begin applying for assistance by registering online at www.DisasterAssistance.gov or by calling 1-800-621- 3362 or 1-800-462-7585 TTY. The toll-free telephone numbers will operate from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. (local time), seven days a week, until further notice.

The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship urges farmers to work with their insurance providers and take inventory of any damage. The department’s website, iowaagriculture.gov/news/resources-flooding, provides a list of resources for those impacted.

"We recognize that we’ve got a long road ahead of us," Naig said. "The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship will continue working closely with the governor’s office, other state agencies, the USDA, and our state’s elected officials to coordinate relief efforts. In the meantime, we know that Iowans will do what we do best — band together to help our neighbors in need."

Can blockchain deliver value to farmers

More and more, blockchain is becoming a buzzword. Years ago it was associated with the instability of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. Today farmers and agribusinesses are realizing it could be the business tool for the future.

According to experts speaking at an educational session at Commodity Classic in Orlando, Florida, the biggest obstacle for agriculture's entry into the blockchain is leaving the pencil and paper behind.

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"Agriculture is one of the least digitized sectors," Mark Pryor, chairman and CEO of The Seam, told the crowd. "That presents a real challenge. We also have data silos that benefit only one company." But Pryor said that every once in a while a technology comes along that revolutionizes the system. He believes blockchains are that technology.

Simply put, a blockchain is an openly distributed ledger that can record transactions between two parties efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way.

"A blockchain provides the single version of the truth between multiple competing parties in the supply chain," Pryor said.

A blockchain has multiple characteristics. They are rules-based, distributed in real-time, permissioned and can’t be changed.

“Participants have the ability to interact with each other with full trust that the agreement will execute on time and as agreed upon no matter if you know the person or have ever done business with them, Luis Macias, CEO of Grainchain said. “They could be located in Africa, China, Morocco or anywhere in the globe.”

But before massive adoption can take place, some hurdles have to be overcome. Pryor illustrated that among individuals and companies, the basic terminology of farming could be different. As an example, in the shipping industry one company may call a ship a vessel. Another company may call it a boat or a conveyance and on and on.

"We are starting to see ADM, Bungee, Cargill and Dreyfus form a partnership that investigates standardizing and digitizing global agriculture transactions," Pryor said. "They have recognized they aren't speaking the same language."

For blockchains to work, the terminology has to be defined and agreed upon by all parties involved. Pryor said it is leading to "coopetition" or collaboration between business competitors for mutual and beneficial results.

What does all this mean for individual farming operations? It improves accuracy, transparency, efficiency and trust. Those factors can help farmers navigate and negotiate the narrow margins that exist in farming today, according to the panelists.

"With razor-thin margins, we need to figure out how to enhance our marketing opportunities," Macias said. "How do we market our products the way we deserve and use the empowerment of data to make more money?"

To do that, Marcias started Grainchain, a company built from the blockchain platform utilizing suites of software products designed to increase efficiencies for farmers.

"We are providing the technology to level the playing field for the small-to medium-size farmer to be able to compete at the levels that ADM, Bungee, Cargill and others do," he said.

Macias said Grainchain provides the farmer two distinct advantages: It gives them the ability to market grain so they can negotiate a better price, and it creates a system that allows them to trust others from around the world with their paid contracts. The person buying farmers’ grain will know precisely where it came from, how it was put together and the path it took to get to them.

"We've developed a system that will pay you instantly when you drop your grain off," Macias said.

He told the group that with complete trust in the blockchain, farmers will be more open to accepting contracts outside of their normal trading areas that may offer better premiums.

"Once you get used to that, you can venture out into markets that you never would've have considered before," Macias said. "This technology ensures the funds are there when you drop off your grain, directly to your bank account without the fear of the other party backing out of the contract."

Blockchains are only as good as the information entered, according to experts. Macias said individual entry of data needs to be removed. Systems are already in place to grade and measure grain. That data will be added to the blockchain for each transaction.

"The combination of our systems creates an environment where nearly 99 percent of data is entered by systems and not people," he said.

He told the group that the final piece of their software suite manages the trucks going to farmers’ fields, tracking where they went and what they picked up. This provides an authentic dataset that genuinely shows where it came from. That data is used to pay the truck driver for the route taken and the cost of maintaining the fleet of trucks used to transport the products.

"At the end of the day we have an infrastructure that changes the way we are doing business," he said. "We've got customers right now that are going from the field all the way to the end producers. So when that tortilla chip goes in your mouth, you can authentically know where it came from."

According to Grainchain's website, they have already logged 84,410 transactions with more than 5,264,205,815 pounds of commodities processed.

In the future, blockchains will also have implications in food safety traceability, identity preservation, certification of sustainability practices and more.

Originally published for the Iowa Soybean Association