Act of God? Or government? In fight over flood, farmers blame Army Corps of Engineers

Roger Ideker knows the Missouri River might have flooded his family’s farm this past week no matter what.

But he’s also convinced that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made things worse.

“These floods — the big floods like in 2011 and 2010, and I suspect this one — we may have had flooding, but the magnitude of these floods would not be like they are today,” said Ideker, whose fields near St. Joseph are under water. “We would not be setting record highs.”

From the air, the floods that have inundated Nebraska and parts of Missouri, Kansas and Iowa — causing an estimated $3 billion in damage — look like what the insurance industry terms an “act of God”: an unavoidable tragedy that left whole towns covered in water and only navigable by boat.

But they’ve whipped up a decades-long debate over how the Army Corps manages the Missouri River and whether it could do more to prevent spring floods.

Friday morning in Holt County, north of St. Joseph, politicians arrived in the flood’s wake. Local officials faulted the Army Corps for allowing too much water to come out of reservoirs upstream. U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley promised he would be asking “tough questions” in the coming weeks, possibly in congressional hearings.

“The Corps may need to revise their plans, they may need to revise their flood controls plans, they may need to revise their habitat plans,” said Hawley, a Missouri Republican. “We’ll find out.”

Ideker is the lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit brought by almost 400 farmers accusing the Army Corps of using its system of dams and reservoirs to put concerns over protecting endangered wildlife ahead of protecting crops. A federal judge sided with the farmers last year.

Army Corps officials said they couldn’t comment on the lawsuit because the amount of damages owed the farmers is still in litigation.

But generally speaking, Army Corps emergency management specialist Mike Dulin said little could have been done to stop this year’s flood.

“Last week there was a huge storm that covered the middle part of the country and dropped a lot of rainfall,” Dulin said Thursday.

The Army Corps has tried to help communities in the path of the waters, distributing almost 500,000 sandbags along with several automatic sandbag fillers. And it will help with recovery once the waters recede, Dulin said.

“We just want folks to know we’re here for the long haul,” he said. “We’re not backing down from this event.”

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But the Kansas City attorney representing Ideker and the other farmers says they had predicted this flood — maybe not when it would hit or how badly — and they’re convinced the Army Corps is setting up the farm fields to be flooded over and over again.

“Unless there are changes made to how they manage the river and how they physically changed the river, we’re going to continue to see problems, and flooding is going to get worse and worse,” said R. Dan Boulware of Polsinelli law firm. “So yes, they have responsibility and we’re being inundated with phone calls, as you could imagine, from people up and down the river that are seeing their lives destroyed and are asking us, ‘Can you help us?’”

Meanwhile, environmental groups say the farms in the river’s floodplain, and the levees that are often around them, are part of the problem, and what the river needs is less management, not more.

“The river naturally floods,” said Heather Navarro, executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, “and when there’s room for the river, there’s ample flood plains on both sides.”

Gerald Galloway, an engineering professor at the University of Maryland who is considered perhaps the top flood management expert in the United States, said the debate isn’t likely to ebb any time soon. In fact, it’s probably going to get worse as the climate continues to change.

Galloway, who as a retired brigadier general has studied flooding management all over the world, said he’s seeing the same thing, regardless of who is managing rivers or how they’re doing it: More frequent extreme weather is causing more severe flooding, which leads to more difficult — and expensive — decisions about what people try to protect in places like Italy, Australia and China as well as Missouri.

“We’ve known this for some period of time,” Galloway said, “that over time the frequency of a given level of a river is changing and it’s changing toward the point where a 100-year flood is going to be a (more frequent) flood than it was before. You’re going to see those more often.”

“A lot of bad factors”

Conditions were already ripe for this past week’s Missouri River flood. And then one of those extreme weather events hit.

Weeks ago, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had predicted a high potential for flooding this spring because of heavy snowpack upstream that lingered through the long winter.

Then the rare “bomb cyclone” hit March 13, bringing record low pressure and strong rains that melted snow in the Rocky Mountains and Plains and swelled the river rapidly.

“Most of that rain that was falling was just pure runoff,” Dulin said, because the ground was already saturated or frozen.

This is probably just the beginning of a historic spring flooding season nationwide, according to new projections from the National Weather Service.

Dulin said that most of the Missouri River reservoirs had room for flood control earlier in the season. The problem was that the bomb cyclone hit those reservoirs and the areas upstream and downstream, which meant the Army Corps had to release water.

Scott Watson, a service hydrologist at the National Weather Service, said given the combination of heavy rains and snowmelt, and where the storm hit, “there was nothing we could do about a majority of the runoff.

“A lot of bad factors came together to create this.”

But Boulware, the farmers’ attorney, said changes made more than a decade ago to protect recreation and habitat ended up reducing the capacity for flood control in the six upstream reservoirs, which he likened to “bathtubs.”

“If (flood control) was the top priority you’d keep those as empty as possible,” Boulware said. “Since 2004, when they made the changes, they store more water in those bathtubs. That means there’s less (capacity) for flood control.”

“This is the worst I’ve ever seen it, and it probably didn’t have to happen, said Bruce Ideker a farmer in Holt County, Mo. Tammy Ljungblad tljungblad@kcstar.com

Ideker, whose family has been growing corn and soybeans since 1952, said he understands the weather was a factor this year.

But his concern is that the river floods every year, bomb cyclone or not.

“Since 2006, 2007 we’ve had what we term ‘recurrent flooding,’” Ideker said. “The river floods frequently. We have high water frequently. It seems like any type of significant rain causes a flood. It’s just been almost one flood after another, and they seem to increase in intensity. We feel the river has changed from what it was years ago. In fact there’s no doubt in our minds it has.”

“We’re bringing this on ourselves”

Navarro’s environmental group agrees that the river has changed but differs on what the solution should be.

She laughed at the assertion that the Army Corps, whose budget is set by Congress, is putting fish above farms.

“I don’t think anyone has ever accused the Corps of prioritizing the environment,” Navarro said. “They are regularly challenged and sued by groups like ours because they don’t prioritize the environment.”

Navarro said part of the problem is that the Army Corps and others are doing too much to try to manage the river. The Missouri River has always flooded, she said. But it used to have plenty of natural wetlands and floodplains around it to spread out the water.

“I don’t believe the water has ever went over this levee, but it is higher now than it’s ever been, including 1993, 2011 and 1984,” said Mayor Greg Book of Forest City in Holt County, Mo. Tammy Ljungblad tljungblad@kcstar.com

Now it’s lined with levees, some built by the Army Corps, some by local governments and some by farm owners. That funnels water downstream, making the flow stronger and higher. And in years like this, when the levees break or the water overflows them, the flooding is much worse than it would have otherwise been.

“What we’ve done is restrict the areas where that water can go,” Navarro said. “So in some sense we’re bringing this on ourselves.”

The farm levees are part of the problem, Navarro said, and one of the best ways for the Army Corps to lessen the extreme floods would be to buy out the farmers living in the floodplain, take down the agriculture levees and turn their croplands back into wetlands.

That would actually help farmers outside the floodplain, she said.

“That’s why we have so much rich farmland, because naturally these floodwaters replenish the soil,” Navarro said.

But she said Congress doesn’t want to approve money for that.

A “tug-of-war”

Galloway said the Army Corps, and by extension Congress and the people it represents, are trying to balance an almost impossible set of priorities.

The Missouri River has always meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people: farming, hydroelectric power, recreation, drinking water, wildlife habitat, river transportation and more.

Pull in the direction of any of those priorities and all the others are affected.

“Nobody is trying to do anything evil to anybody,” Galloway said. “Any time you take on the river and work it, you’re going to create potential challenges for yourself. … Maybe the answer some people would like is to have the reservoirs empty. But that’s not going to happen ’cause you’ve got to have water for the electricity, you’ve got to have it for tap water. There are competing uses for the river and not everybody agrees with them. Every year there’s going to be a different tug-of-war between the users.”

Friday flood Mar 22, 2019 me 032219 rs 2032f.jpg
This aerial view shows the swollen Missouri River well out of its banks Friday afternoon in Atchison, Kan. Rich Sugg rsugg@kcstar.com

Galloway said the Army Corps could build up higher levees, like they did in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and in Kansas City after the historic 1993 floods.

But that’s expensive and not as cost-effective along sparsely populated farmland. There’s a reason Omaha has a 500-year flood levee and people 30 miles downstream have much less protection.

“I’m going to say something unpopular but it’s the reality of life: Everything is based on a cost-benefit analysis,” Galloway said. “Big cities get more protection, and this is around the world. You protect what you need to protect where the risk is the highest.”

Meanwhile the risk will continue to increase, year after year. Galloway said people can differ about the reasons for climate change but there is indisputable scientific evidence that the climate is changing.

The flooding is a sign of things to come, he said, and a reminder that communities have to be resilient enough to bounce back because “nature still can give us a punch we aren’t ready for.”

“Nature is much more powerful than we are,” Galloway said, “and we’re going to do our very best but people ought to know that at a certain point you can’t control the (water) flows and we’re gonna have cases when (levees) overflow and overtop.”

The Star’s Crystal Thomas contributed to the story.

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Kansas City Star health reporter Andy Marso was part of a Pulitzer Prize-finalist team at The Star and previously won state and regional awards at the Topeka Capital-Journal and Kansas Health Institute News Service. He has written two books, including one about his near-fatal bout with meningitis.