By Todd Neeley, DTN Staff Reporter
OMAHA (DTN) — Six Missouri River basin governors and one lieutenant governor thumped their chests Friday, demanding that flood control be the No. 1 priority in managing the river, but there was one noticeably empty chair.
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s decision not to attend the meeting in Omaha and his refusal to sign a letter in support of the governors’ position, illustrates how the complexities of managing the river have separated the states for decades.
The governors’ ability to find common ground could determine the future of families, agriculture and other industries along the basin.
“I respect his (Gov. Schweitzer’s) opinion, but he’s going to disagree with us on this,” Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman said during a press conference following the meeting. “He could have been here today. I wish he would have been here. But we’re united.”
Those governors in attendance were quick to label the meeting a “success” and “historic” in its result.
“We do want to work with the Corps,” Heineman said. “However, I want to make one point from a Nebraska perspective. It is critical in the future that the corps respond quicker to the flood challenges that we will inevitably face. The corps must do a better job in the future to prevent the flooding of cities, farms, businesses, ranches, power facilities and other publicly critical infrastructure. We as governors are united in this effort.”
The Associated Press reported Friday that Schweitzer refused to sign the letter because he’s frustrated that downriver governors want to focus solely on flood mitigation and navigation, at the expense of recreation, wildlife and other needs that help Montana’s economy.
In addition, Schweitzer told AP that ongoing Montana forest fires and a decision to close the meeting to the press were reasons for his absence.
Missouri River basin states have disagreed about how to best manage the river to meet all needs — recreation, agriculture, endangered species and transportation.
Some believe that disagreement, at least in part, has led to disasters like the catastrophic flooding in the lower basin this summer.
Finger-pointing began when water started rushing south from Gavins Point dam in South Dakota, flooding farms and communities along the river this spring.
By some estimates, more than 2 million acres of crop land has been lost in the flood, though an exact accounting is yet to be completed.
In a letter to Secretary of the Army John McHugh, Heineman and governors from Iowa, North Dakota, Missouri, Kansas, South Dakota and Wyoming said flood control should be the top priority in the basin.
“Releases from Corps of Engineers’ managed reservoirs have been at unprecedented rates and durations this year,” the letter said. “Despite the valiant efforts of many, the damage to homes, farms and industries will take years to repair. We all share in the challenges of helping repair those damages and reducing the chances of future flood damages.
“We strongly request the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers thoroughly examine future management of the Missouri River in light of this year’s precipitation and flooding and report to us on alternate actions to reduce flood damage from future high flow events. We also request that the corps provide recommendations for specific operational changes to afford greater flood protection in the basin in the future and consult with the states and tribes in selecting and implementing any changes.”
The letter was signed by Heineman, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard and Wyoming Gov. Matthew H. Mead.
MEETING A FIRST STEP
Even without Schweitzer’s support, the governors said they expect this to be the first step in the states’ move toward being more active in the management of the river.
“To have Missouri and the upstream states agree that the pre-eminent and most important issue that is to be done is to protect our citizens from floods,” Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said. “That is the reason why the Flood Control Act was passed in 1944.
“That is the reason why our resources are used to protect downstream. This year has been a situation in which we have seen unprecedented levels of water released and unprecedented levels of water into our citizens’ lives in ways in the future that we think can be better prevented.”
Though the basin states still have their own interests to protect, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple said he expects the corps will take action because the governors stand united on flood control and the states at the table are willing to give ground on some interests.
“This may seem intuitive to a lot of people, but it is something we feel needs to be cleared up,” he said. “I want to clear up myself one misconception right away. That is the upstream states don’t care about flood control.”
Dalrymple said the water storage below the Garrison Dam is one of the main beneficiaries of the flood control system in the United States.
“We are in the business of storing water,” he said. “We also are interested in lowering our reservoir this fall to a level that will provide plenty of storage for next spring. Our interests are aligned there with the downstream states.”
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback said the meeting was “historic” because governors found common ground.
“We’re going to press the corps to work with us that flood control should be the primary issue,” he said.
Brownback also called for a high-level external review of how the Missouri River system was operated this year to “re-establish credibility with operating the river system.”
South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard said the corps seemed to be “accepting” of such a review.
The governors attending the meeting said they discussed a variety of weaknesses in the current system and how the corps could address those issues.
Dalrymple said there is room for improvement in the data that states receive about the amount of water coming out of the Rocky Mountains.
“We have anecdotal evidence that there is better information available,” he said, “information that could be more timely in predicting the amount of flow out of the mountains. We also talked about weakness about not having an early warning system that can be translated down to the citizen level. We do have a lot of data available, if you know how to access that.”
Dalrymple said an early warning system of some kind could help property owners downstream to make decisions ahead of flood waters, potentially saving billions of dollars in property losses.
The governors plan to meet in November to provide input on corps plans for winter and spring releases.
Dalrymple said there was some discussion about a river compact, but he said the issue would need more study before it could happen.
One of the biggest fears for basin states is that the corps will continue on with business as usual following the flood.
“We also urge the corps not to assume a return to normalcy,” Daugaard said. “I think part of the corps’ pattern is to base their predictive models on an assumption that normalcy will be a condition to which the basin returns within months. Given heavily saturated soils, given a heavy snow pack, given weather service predictions of above-average rainfall, it doesn’t make sense to assume a relatively quick return to normalcy.”
Gov. Nixon said that moving river management from the courts to the governors’ offices makes sense.
“This issue has been fought out in courts across this land for decades,” he said. “These issues and the other purposes have been points of disagreement between the states, points where the states have used that wedge of disagreement as an excuse not to get direct action. And when you make the significant step that all of us did in giving up some little part of our particular state-specific interests, to come together, to speak for the millions of people that we represent and the hundreds of millions of acres that are under water this year — that is a significant step forward.”
© Copyright 2011 DTN/The Progressive Farmer, A Telvent Brand. All rights reserved.
Posted with DTN Permission by Haylie Shipp