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.

Missouri River flood recovery

By Joseph L. Murphy

Today driving through the I-29 corridor near Iowa towns like Hamburg and Percival you would never know the area had experienced a widespread flood. Crops are green, businesses are open, and people are getting back to their normal lives. That was not the case one year ago when the over swollen Missouri River breached levees in Fremont County sending water on a destructive course killing crops, destroying roads and ruining homes from Sioux City to Hamburg.

Leo Ettleman and Jeff Jorgenson stand on a recently rebuilt levee near the Missouri River. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers repaired the levees back to the original flood protection giving residents the security to rebuild their farms and homes. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

Leo Ettleman and Jeff Jorgenson stand on a recently rebuilt levee near the Missouri River. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers repaired the levees back to the original flood protection giving residents the security to rebuild their farms and homes. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

People in Iowa, Nebraska and Missouri, had to deal with the prolonged flooding and damage. Farmers like Jeff Jorgenson, an Iowa Soybean Association Director, and Leo Ettleman, an Iowa Soybean Association member, witnessed significant losses and damage to their cropland, homes and roads. Some areas dealt with floodwaters from June to November of last year.

“Overall we are very pleased with the progress.” Ettleman said looking at one of his soybean fields. “The goal was to get our security back, through flood risk reduction, to where we could get on with our lives, get our homes back, get the roads back and get commerce back.”

To accomplish that, they needed help from the federal government to rebuild levees that were breached during the flood. Ettleman along with other farmers in the area formed the group Responsible River Management (RRM) That group has been credited with creating a unified voice for agricultural interests in the area while making flood control needs known to the Army Corps of Engineers.

“Some of the projects in the past have been detrimental to agriculture and to flood risk,” Ettleman said. “Now they are (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) starting to see, by us being at the table, that those things need to change.”

The main focus of the group following the flood last year was to regain flood control at the original 100-year protection levels. Due to a lack of funding the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers originally planned to repair the levees at 25-year flood levels. By doing that crop insurance would be jeopardized for many farms in the area. After a flood of calls from farmers and others involved with RRM, the federal government recognized the importance of rebuilding the levees to the original strength.

“Now, I think they see that when flood control fails everything fails,” Ettleman said about the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “Fish and wildlife projects were shot, recreation was shot, and everything fails when flood control fails.”

In late December, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers received the funding that they needed to restore the levees to the original strength. That, combined with a mild winter, allowed the construction projects to go full speed ahead. By the beginning of March, the levees repairs were completed.

“The protection that they are helping to provide (RRM) for Fremont County is tremendous,” Jorgenson said. “Otherwise you feel like you are getting stepped on. The RRM understands policy better than most of the people at the state house when it comes to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of the Interior.”

Once the protection of their farms and fields were secure both Jorgenson and Ettleman said they were able to focus on recovering from the floodwaters and preparing their fields for spring planting. “The outlook in October was very meager because we didn’t know if we could get back in and start farming again,” Jorgenson said. “For the most part we were able to plant like normal this spring. The weather bailed us out. Otherwise, it would have been a whole different situation.”

The mild winter weather allowed farmers in the area to fill holes and move sand off of many fields in the area. Jorgensen said that he moved 4,000 yards of sand a day for twelve days to get just one 80 acre section cleaned up. Today the crop stands look healthy in the impacted fields, and both Ettleman and Jorgenson are optimistic for average yielding beans. Although they are concerned that continued dry weather could impact the crops quickly because of the sandy soil. “We’ve got good stands, and we’ve had some timely rains,” Ettleman said. “ We’re very pleased with the progress.”

Neither farmer would have expected to be in this good of a situation after the destruction they experienced last year. Now they have optimism that newly constructed levees can offer the protection needed for them to concentrate on their farms. Ettleman hopes that, in the next five years, his farm and life will be back to normal.

“There’s about two years of progress done now, and it happened in the last six months,” Jorgensen said. “But now it will slow down because we will be fine tuning the soil to get the production back to where we want it. That will take time.” For more information on Responsible River Management you can follow this link: