Proposed study could take years to complete, implement

Tekamah man Shawn Qualley questions Iowa Cong. Steve King following last Wednesday’s stakeholders meeting in Missouri Valley.

After three rounds of flooding along the Missouri River, emergency managers, lawmakers and the Army Corps of Engineers are speaking with many concerned citizens about how to prevent future flooding.

Iowa Congressman Steve King hosted a meeting that drew nearly 100 people from Iowa and Nebraska to Missouri Valley Oct. 2 to talk with King and representatives with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about changing the way flood control is handled after this year’s continued flooding.

Many of those attending attribute the flooding to the high volume of water being released from the upstream dams.

Releases from Gavins Point Dam near Yankton, S.D., were increased in September to 80,000 cubic feet per second, more than twice the average rate for this time of year. Flows will remain at that level through November, said John Remus, chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Missouri River Water Management Division in Omaha. Releases from other dams in the system will remain high as the Corps tries to empty water from reservoirs so they have full storage capacity once the 2020 runoff season begins in March.

As of Oct. 1, the amount of water stored in the Missouri River’s six reservoirs was at 64 million acre feet, occupying 7.9 MAF of the 16.3 MAF of the system’s flood storage capacity.

King organized the meeting with the purpose of bringing together interested parties to develop a better plan to protect lives and property from the impacts of continuous flooding along the Missouri River.

King said a week ago he took a low altitude flight to review the discharge from Gavins Point Dam and viewed the river as far south as the Missouri border. He said the flooding is longer, broader and worse than the historic flood of 2011.

In 2011 property along the river was under water from June to September.

“We never thought we’d see that again,” he said. “But here we are.”

He said he called the meeting at the request of Iowa state representative Jon Jacobsen as a way to help find answers to the ongoing flooding problems along the river.

“I didn’t expect this much interest, but I’m glad there is,” the congressman said as he viewed the crowd that filled the meeting room at the library as well as the overflow seating in the hallway. “It shows how many people’s lives are affected by this.”

Southwest Iowa has been dealing with a compromised levee system since March, with over 40 breaches from Council Bluffs to the Kansas-Nebraska state line. Col. John Hudson, the Omaha District Commander for the Corps, said work to close the breaches is ongoing. Once the breaches are closed, the plan is to restore the levee system up to a 25-year level of protection by March of next year.

The long-term plan, Hudson said, is a study on the lower Missouri River and its tributaries from Sioux City to St. Louis. The study would look at ways to reduce flood risks, vulnerability and damages and improving infrastructure, according to the Corps.

Hudson said a long-term solution has to include more than an improved levee system. Additional solutions could include establishing floodways and looking at drainage management, to make the system more resilient.

“If we have a similar melt event that we had in this last March, we’ll have similar impacts on the system,” Hudson said. “It was overtopped for four days and we will have levees overtopped for four days again. It was all on unregulated tributaries.”

Among the solutions stakeholders want to see is increasing the carrying capacity of the river. They say removal of revetments and wing dikes has made the river slower and wider, increasing the likelihood, and the severity, of flooding.

Hornick, Iowa, Mayor Scott Mitchell was one of many people voicing their frustrations over this year’s flooding, hoping to bring change for the future.

“We have to voice our opinion and make that change because we can sit and we can holler at the Corps all we want, but it’s not going to change,” he said. “Us in this room, out there, you have to tell your congressman, senators, and your governors that these rules have to change.” Mitchell said.

King agreed and he asked for the stakeholders’ help in getting started.

“Identify the rules, what we need to get changed, in order to get this done and set about adjusting them for the here and now,” King told reporters. “I am concerned about this river all the way up to Three Forks and all the way down to St. Louis.”

Remus also told reporters that good ideas came from the meeting.

“We’re gonna do some of the things that have been mentioned here,” Remus said. “Maybe being more aggressive in the spring if we have an opportunity to clear some space. We are very concerned about being able to manage flooding next year with the fragile levee system below Omaha.”

Among the solutions King is proposing is an expedited study of downstream water management, which Corps officials say could take three to five years to complete, as well as Congressional appropriations to implement; and the formation of a Missouri River Commission, similar to the body that operates the Mississippi River.

“I think we have our marching orders,” King said at the end of Wednesday’s meeting. “We want to work cooperatively with you and with the Army Corps of Engineers.”

In speaking with reporters, King said the recurring flooding along the river is “a clear issue,” and said the people he spoke with on Wednesday impressed him with their depth of knowledge.

“People have been hurting deeply and for a long time,” he said. “They need relief.”

King said he doesn’t want to see the productive farmlands of the Missouri River bottoms disappear. “It’s too valuable and the people who live there are too valuable.”

The Corps will conduct a series of public meetings this month to give updates on the planned operation of the reservoir system for the remaining months of 2019 and present plans for the 2020 operations.

One of the meetings is scheduled for 4 p.m. Oct. 23 at the Betty Strong Encounter Center at the Lewis & Clerk Interpretive Center, 900 Larson Park Road, in Sioux City.

King could get some help from the highest level of the Corps itself.

Speaking at a similar meeting in late August in North Sioux City, Brig. Gen. Peter Helmlinger, commander of the Corps’ Northwestern Division, which oversees the six Missouri River reservoirs and other flood control measures, said flood control measures along the Missouri River to the south of Sioux City must be changed. He suggested a study of downstream operations could begin during the current fiscal year, once the scope of the study is determined.

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