WASHINGTON — The Army Corps of Engineers says it desperately needs about $1 billion to repair the damage from this year's catastrophic flooding in the Missouri and Mississippi basins.
Last spring brought as much as 10 times the normal amount of rainfall to the South and Midwest, which mixed with melting snow to produce record river levels along the lower Ohio and Mississippi rivers, according to the corps.
As the Missouri River finally ebbs below flood stage, the corps' Northwest commander, Brig. Gen. John McMahon, also is defending his decision to release only enough water from the river's reservoirs in recent months to have a normal capacity for next flood season. Critics have complained that the corps didn't move quickly enough last spring to release more water once the heavy rains began.
At a committee hearing last week, senators asked why the corps hasn't released more water from reservoirs recently to head off further problems before the next flood season began. McMahon responded that there wouldn't be enough time "to get the water out of the floodplain, out of farms, out of homes, out of businesses" or for federal and state agencies to inspect and repair infrastructure before the next flood season, which starts in March.
The repair work — such as rebuilding the Birds Point levee in Missouri, which was blasted during the summer flooding — has stretched the corps' budget about as far as it can go, according to division spokesman Bob Anderson.
"Our greatest challenge this year is making repairs to all the levees that were damaged in the great flood of 2011," Anderson said in a phone interview.
The corps has identified 93 repair projects in the Mississippi basin south of St. Louis, more than 20 of which are crucial to protecting people and property from damage in the next flood season, Anderson said.
If money were readily available, the corps could complete the work before March, but "at the current funding levels, it may be difficult to do that," he said.
The corps puts the total cost for lower Mississippi repairs at $1 billion, most of which would have to come as a supplemental spending bill from Congress, Anderson said.
"I don't know where that bill is right now," he said. "We haven't gotten it."
Congress may consider the relief Anderson's division is looking for in coming weeks. The Senate energy and water appropriations subcommittee, headed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., approved $1.045 billion last month for disaster relief from flooding on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee.
The money isn't enough to cover all the damage, Feinstein said. "However, it does cover the damages that the corps can quantify at this time," she said. "We will continue to monitor this situation and make adjustments as the bill progresses."
Senate leaders will determine which appropriations will be in a second, so-called "mini-bus" spending measure once the first is passed, which could be in a couple weeks or longer, a staff member with Feinstein's office said earlier this week.
The Army's assistant secretary of civil works said last week that the total bill to complete repairs and dredge storm sediment from rivers would be $2 billion. The corps is scraping together what money it can from longer-term projects, Jo-Ellen Darcy told senators at an Environment and Public Works Committee hearing.
Senators asked what the corps is doing differently to prepare for next year's flood season.
Some senators said the floods were a wakeup call that the corps should overhaul its water priorities by revising the Missouri River master manual, a blueprint that guides the way water is allocated on the river.
But the last change in the master manual took 14 years and $33 million, Darcy cautioned.
"The master manual cannot be changed willy-nilly," said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. "It takes time and thought."
(The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.)
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