WASHINGTON — Lawmakers from Missouri and other nearby states insisted Wednesday that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers emphasize flood prevention above anything else in managing the Missouri River.
The occasion was a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment, scheduled to look into the question of how to prepare for the next deluge, even as Missouri and other states in the river basin still reel from the impact of record flooding this year.
Panel members as well as witnesses were nearly unanimous that issues related to fish and wildlife, recreation and other river uses had to take a back seat.
"I believe that we are asking the Corps of Engineers to juggle too many priorities," said Republican Rep. Sam Graves of Missouri. "We must make clear once and for all that the prevention of flooding has to be the number one priority."
Graves, who said thousands of acres in northwestern Missouri were "utterly devastated," has introduced legislation to remove fish and wildlife management as one of the corps' priorities.
The overall impact of the flooding throughout the basin is more than $2 billion, according to Congress. It destroyed farmland, homes and infrastructure. Five people died.
In Missouri alone, the combination of rain and snowmelt flooded 207,000 acres of agricultural land, resulting in $176 million in lost revenue, according to the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. It also created a spillover effect on local economies.
The Missouri River begins in Montana, and this spring flooded along its path through North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri.
Brig. Gen. John McMahon, commander of the northwestern division of the corps, said the agency already has begun shifting funds to deal with damaged levees up and down the river. But it won't be enough, he said.
"The wiggle room is narrow," McMahon said. "At some point, we're going to need new funds for repair and restoration of the system."
The corps has come under heated criticism from many who fault it for not doing enough ahead of time to prepare for the water.
"We probably could have — should have — done a better job of communicating," McMahon said. But the "successive bouts of rain really threw us for a loop."
In Holt County, which lies in the northwest corner of Missouri, the flooding breeched 32 levees on the river's western border. Holt County Clerk Kathy Kunkel told the panel that the breaks in some cases were half a mile wide; in others, 50 feet.
With nearly 20 percent of the county already set aside for wildlife protection by either the federal or state government, she said residents feel like Washington needs to pay less mind to fish and more attention to people.
"We've given enough," Kunkel said in her prepared testimony. "Holt Countians feel threatened and endangered. The American farmer in our region is fast approaching extinction."
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