After flooding, Army Corps’ Missouri River management questioned by senators who see ‘misguided decisions’

After flooding, Army Corps’ Missouri River management questioned by senators who see ‘misguided decisions’
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, front left, questions Maj. Gen. Scott Spellmon and John Remus of the Corps of Engineers. To her right are Iowa Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley and Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

GLENWOOD, Iowa — Changes to the Missouri River’s management wouldn’t have prevented the damage from last month’s flooding, Army Corps of Engineers officials said Wednesday.

The problem, they said, is that the six-dam system upriver wasn’t designed for the volume of water that came flowing down the Missouri last month, taking out levees and flooding houses and agricultural land.

“If they (the dams) were all empty, this would have still occurred,” said Maj. Gen. Scott Spellmon, the deputy commanding general of civil and emergency operations for the corps.

Four senators — two from Iowa, one from Kansas and one from New York — questioned corps officials on how the flood was handled and whether laws should be changed to better address flooding in the future.

The corps has received criticism in the wake of the flood because flood prevention isn’t its top priority — it’s one of eight purposes. In particular, the Missouri River Recovery Program, designed to protect three species, came under fire.

“It seems to me that misguided decisions and misplaced priorities have eclipsed common sense,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.

John Remus, the chief of the Missouri River Basin Water Management Division, told the panel that the corps has made flooding its top priority on the Missouri River for the past 13 months.

The corps wasn’t the only target of the senators’ ire. Another was a $1 billion backlog in corps projects that have been approved by Congress. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, the lone Democrat in attendance, pointed to that deficit. (Gillibrand, who is running for president, was also in town to campaign in Iowa.)

“This is not new,” she said. “Our communities have been suffering for a very long time. And global climate change is urgent.”

She and Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, also pointed to an Office of Budget Management formula for where to send money first. That formula puts heavy weight on property value, which means that the Midwest and particularly rural areas lose out to higher-cost coastal states.

“That (formula) comes in between the Midwest and so many vitally important projects that we have,” she said.

The mayor of Hamburg, Iowa, Cathy Crain, also spoke. She told the committee that the city was required to either upgrade or take down a temporary levee that had saved the town from the 2011 flooding.

Corps officials have said there was a third option, which was to leave the levee in place, but it wouldn’t have been certified.

During the hearing, Crain said Hamburg couldn’t afford to upgrade the temporary levee, so it came down.

“This time the devastation went where floodwater had never been,” she said.