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Is flood control finally getting the attention it deserves?

Posted Wednesday, February 15, 2012, at 1:29 PM

After more than 20 years of fighting, those who farm along the Missouri River are hopeful their message is starting to get through.

Flood control has got to be the top priority in managing the Missouri River.

Even before the Flood of 1993, which was the first major flood along the river in 40 years, environmental issues and upstream recreational interests had gotten a foot hold, to the detriment of Missouri River bottom land farmers.

Since that time, dikes built to keep the river in the channel have not been maintained. Once commonplace, the channel is rarely dredged of sand. Bank stabilization has taken a backseat to "river restoration."

Simply put, if you follow the money, since 1990 more than $612 million has been spent on buying up some of the country's most productive farmland and trying to turn it into "natural habitat," or its pre-Lewis and Clark state. At the same time, "nickels and dimes" have been spent on river operation and maintenance.

It got even worse in 2003 when the Army Corps of Engineers Master Manual was revised. A spring rise was implemented, releasing more water downstream, just as farmers were trying to plant crops. Farmers say it is no coincidence they have been flooded five of the past seven years since the revision.

In many of the 66,000 acres already purchased for wildlife restoration, chutes have been dug, with the topsoil put back into the river. Dikes, built to keep the river flowing in the middle, have been notched up and down the river. Those two things, coupled with the lack of dredging, has allowed the river to wash away banks, levees and farmland.

All of this not only spells disaster for the farmers and their land, it also costs all of us money, and it isn't just in yearly levee repairs.

Because valuable, productive land is being either bought up by the government, washed away and/or flooded year after year, there are fewer crops produced. Of course, the fewer the crops, means higher food prices for all. There is no farmland being made, and urban sprawl takes away thousands of productive farm acres each year. Added to that is a world population explosion, expected to top 9 billion people by 2050.

Of course, the land being purchased by the corps and Fish and Wildlife services with our tax dollars are then taken off county tax bases. That means we all have to pay more for schools, bridges, roads, etc.

And according to farmers and those knowledgeable with the river, the chutes and notches, coupled with the lack of dredging sand, means the river is no longer navigable. One barge hauling grain down the river can keep 100 semi-trucks off our already crumbling roads. That, too, of course costs all of us money. Before the 1980s, barges were commonplace up and down the river. Today, barges are all but non-existent.

However, if the speaker line-up at the Feb. 11, Missouri Levee and Drainage District Association meeting is any indication, the tide on the Missouri River issues may be changing.

The politicians present at the meeting noted it was the first time -- ever-- where all seven stakeholder states along the river basin have agreed: Flood control has got to be the top priority in river management.

They also seemed to be painfully aware of the discrepancy in spending between river maintenance and habitat restoration.

The corps has taken a lot of heat for the Flood of 2011, and that may be warranted. However, as several farmers have pointed out to me, members of the corps staff are soldiers. They follow orders. And those orders are coming from our government, the people we elected.

At the MLDDA meeting, corps officials said they had gotten the message loud and clear from farmers and politicians. They have taken extra measures to draw down the reservoirs. The spring rise has been cancelled for 2012.

Funding has been allocated, and levee repairs are being completed as quickly as possible.

It was also reported the mountain and basin snowpack is below normal thus far.

So even though some levees won't yet be back in place during spring 2012, the hope is it won't be a repeat of 2011.

That makes it even more important for farmers and others to keep the attention of the lawmakers, while the flood event is still fresh, and river states are agreeing on the river's primary purpose.

It is even more important, considering when the new U.S. budget came out Monday, Feb. 13, the corps numbers had not changed. There was still more than $73 billion for buying land and developing habitat and less than $7 million for bank and river maintenance.

So far, politics has blocked the bi-partisan efforts of Missouri senators Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt to get those numbers changed.

On Saturday, all the elected officials promised to keep fighting to make flood control and protection the river's top priority, once and for all.

Let's continue to hold them to their promises. Before it is too late, before more of the nation's most productive farmland is lost.

And before we are relying on other countries for our food supply.

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