Sen. Chuck Grassley hearing in Glenwood

Sen. Chuck Grassley listens to Earl Smith of Pacific Junction, Iowa, during a field hearing April 17 in Glenwood. The subject was the ongoing flooding along the Missouri River. 

There has long been an uneasy relationship between some farmers and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The intentional blowout of a section of the Birds Point levee in 2011 still stirs emotions among farmers in southeast Missouri, whose lands were flooded after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers used explosives to blast out a section of the levee in order to divert floodwaters away from populated areas.

The action resulted in the flooding of thousands of acres of farmland and numerous structures, including homes, barns and grain bins.

“They were upset and frustrated by the decision,” said Anthony Ohmes, an educator with University of Missouri Extension. “... The river was trickling over the top of the levee and they thought they had more time — that it didn’t have be done at that time. There were some hard feelings.”

John Moreton, who farms near Charleston, Missouri, was among those whose land was on the receiving end of the controlled flood and who believes the action was unnecessary. But he was one of the lucky ones. He did lose his wheat crop but received crop insurance payments. And he was able to plant soybeans in June that year.

He didn’t have any buildings in the floodway.

“Lots of our neighbors did, and lots of our neighbors had houses, too,” Moreton said. “People were hurt.”

The decision — made by then-commanding officer Major General Michael Walsh (now retired) — was fraught with controversy.

“It was a heart-wrenching situation for the commanding general,” said Corps spokesman Jim Pogue. “Some people thought he waited too long, and some thought he jumped the gun. It was a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation.”

Pogue and others take issue with simplifying the breach as merely a decision to save the city of Cairo, Ill., at the expense of farmers in the Missouri Bootheel.

“It was really to save the whole flood-control system,” he said. “Cairo was certainly feeling some pressure. But across the Mississippi, in Kentucky and northern Tennessee, levees were under tremendous strain.

“On the Missouri side, rivers were close to topping the levee. If that would have happened, we possibly would have had an uncontrolled breach. It could very well have resulted in major loss of life, and certainly property.”

A federal judge dismissed a large portion of a 2012 class-action lawsuit brought by 140 farmers in the region. Some litigation is still ongoing.

Floodways are areas designated for flood control. The Birds Point floodway encompasses about 205 square miles between the frontline levee and a setback levee.

“The floodway acts like a pressure-relief valve, essentially,” Pogue said. “There were people living in the floodway, but they have known for generations that it is a floodway.”

The floodway has been controversial since its inception, when President Calvin Coolidge pushed through enactment of the Flood Control Act of 1928. Lawsuits delayed implementation of the system as early as 1929. Other than the 2011 flood, it was purposely blown only one other time, in 1937.

With the flooding this spring in southwest Iowa and northwest Missouri, management of the river and the dam system upstream by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has once again been called into question. Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley has been a vocal critic of the Corps, and many farmers believe more of an emphasis is being placed on recreation than flood control and human safety.

Matt Krajewski, readiness branch chief for the Corps’ Omaha district, says human safety remains the top priority when it comes to managing the Missouri, Mississippi and other major rivers.

“Life safety is always paramount,” he says. “There is an elevated amount of risk with the levee system, and the system has been damaged. As folks return to their homes, we want them to stay aware of the information that is out there.”

Krajewski says the National Weather Service described the events of mid-March as a “bomb cyclone.” Blizzard conditions to the north and heavy rainfall to the south combined with rapidly melting snow pack in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa to produce historic flooding along tributaries in Nebraska.

Much of the water feeds into the Platte River, which empties into the Missouri River near Plattsmouth, Neb.

“A lot of the water came down the Platte and other uncontrolled tributaries,” Krajewski says.

Not long after the first round of flooding, the melting of heavy snowpack in the upper Missouri basin, as well as in parts of the Rocky Mountains, necessitated larger water releases from Gavins Point Dam — the last dam in the Corps’ system.

“There was so much water coming in that it was in danger of overtopping the spillway,” Krajewski says.

Not all farmers have had bad experiences with the Corps of Engineers. Scott Heins, who farms in a floodplain in southern Illinois, about 80 miles north of the Birds Point levee, has a generally positive view of the Corps. This year, he has experienced only internal farm flooding; levees guarding his land have held the Mississippi waters.

“We get along with them,” Heins said. “We usually take their advice. A couple of guys drive our levee. If they see any issues, they let us know.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., is among the critics. He believes the Corps doesn’t always follow up adequately with cleanup assistance after floods. He points to a recent breach of the Len Small levee in Alexander County.

“They spent millions putting in riprap, but it keeps washing through and cutting the land,” said Bost, whose congressional district includes the Mississippi River bottoms from East St. Louis to Cairo.

“I praise them for the good things they’ve been doing. But long term, when the waters back off, they’re not real good about taking care of the land. A lot of that’s because their rules don’t allow it.”

Moreton believed major damage could have been avoided without the blasting of the levee. Still, he believes the Corps is a positive force in the region and regularly communicates with farmers.

“They meet with levee boards and with drainage districts talking about future plans,” he said. “They come through on river boat and have inspection tours twice a year. They have rebuilt the levee, and we need the levee.”

Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.

Jeff DeYoung is livestock editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.