Government & Politics

Flooded farmers along Missouri would get more say in river management under Hawley bill

A farm near Craig, Mo. during the March floods.
A farm near Craig, Mo. during the March floods. David Drewes

Farmers along the Missouri River, some plagued by flooding this spring, would get more of a voice in how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) manages the river under a bill introduced Tuesday by Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley.

Hawley’s new legislation would create an advisory council with two members from each of the seven states along the river: North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Montana, Iowa and Nebraska and Missouri. The representatives from agriculture or river commerce industries would be appointed by the president based on recommendations from the states’ senators.

The council would be tasked with producing a report recommending changes in Corps of Engineers’ master manual, then disband after a year.

“People who live along the river regularly deal with catastrophic flooding, simply because the Army Corps is acting under conflicting priorities,” Hawley said in a statement. “What’s more, farmers feel like they have been shut out and their voices don’t matter – and that is completely unacceptable. By introducing these bills, we can get at the root of the problem, demand change, and ensure the Army Corps prioritizes the safety and sustainability of our communities.”

The USACE already receives recommendations from the Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee, which is made up of about 70 stakeholders, including federal, state, tribal and river-related industry representatives. Initiated in 2007, the committee has the broader goal of advising all the federal agencies that affect the Missouri River basin.

Another bill filed by Hawley would mandate flood control as the Corps’ first priority, removing fish and wildlife protection as one of its authorized purposes.

Currently, the Corps’ master manual lists eight purposes: flood control, navigation, water supply, water quality control, irrigation, recreation, hydropower and fish and wildlife, including threatened and endangered species.

The bill has been filed every year since 2015 by U.S. Rep. Sam Graves, whose Tarkio farm has experienced recurrent flooding.

“People and property should always take precedent over fish and birds,” Graves, the bill’s House sponsor, said in the statement. “Senator Hawley recognizes this and I’m thrilled that he is leading on this issue in the Senate. Working together, I’m hopeful that we can properly address the management priorities on the Missouri River, saving lives and livelihoods in the process.”

In visits following the spring floods, Hawley, Graves and Missouri’s senior Sen. Roy Blunt have been critical of the U.S. Army Corps.

USACE needs to get its priority straight, Blunt, a co-sponsor on the bill, said in a statement.

“The river clearly hasn’t been managed in a way that protects people and property, and this bill will change that,” Blunt said in a statement. “We need to move forward before Missourians are faced with another preventable disaster.”

Environmental groups have noted that many of the washed out farms are within the river’s natural floodplain. They have called for fewer levees so that the water has more room to spread, causing less destruction.

Missouri farmers are still waiting on Congress to pass an aid package. Earlier in the month, Graves broke from Republicans to support a disaster relief bill largely approved by House Democrats. The bill addresses the loophole in U.S. Department of Agriculture’s relief programs that had previously meant farmers could not be compensated for damage to their stored crops.

The U.S. Senate has been gridlocked over disagreement with President Donald Trump on the level of aid for Puerto Rico.

Trump approved a disaster declaration for Missouri Monday. Thirteen counties will be able to access Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds for public infrastructure repairs. Five counties — Andrew, Atchison, Buchanan, Holt and Platte — are still waiting to hear if they qualify for individual assistance, which provides temporary housing relief and aid for home repairs.

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