Governors: Make flood control priority

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August 18, 2011 - 7:00pm

The governors of seven states including Nebraska agreed Friday that flood control should be the top priority in managing the Missouri River. But the governor of Montana disagreed, and Congress requires other priorities to be taken into account.

The meeting in Omaha featured the governors or their representatives from seven states the Missouri River or its tributaries flow through: Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri. Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, who convened the meeting, described the governors' conclusion, saying. "Flood control must be the highest priority in the operation of the Missouri River."

That conclusion was contained in a letter the governors signed to the Secretary of the Army, whose Corps of Engineers operate the dams that regulate flow on the river. The Corps has come under criticism for not acting earlier to avoid this year's flooding, which has inundated farmland, homes and businesses. North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple said the governors discussed weaknesses in the current management system, including the data available. And Dalrymple said the average person may not be able to understand the significance of the data that are available, for example on snowpack in the mountains. "An early warning system, where people can get a simple advisement of their risk, whether yellow, orange or red level alert, would go a long way toward helping people decide whether or not to buy flood insurance, whether or not to raise a levee in their area," Dalrymple said. "Those things could protect millions -- hundreds of millions -- if not billions of dollars worth of
property."

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said agreeing that flood control should take top priority is a dramatic shift. When you make the significant step that all of us did in giving up some little part of our particular state-specific interest, to come together to speak for all the millions of people that we represent, and the hundreds of thousands of acres that are underwater right now and were underwater this year, that is a significant step
forward," Nixon said.

In the past, there has been significant disagreement, for example, between downstream states like Missouri that favor releasing more water into the river for navigation, and upstream states like the Dakotas that want to keep more water in reservoirs for recreation.

Some of that tension is still evident, as Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer refused to attend the meeting or sign the governor's letter. Schweitzer said the emphasis on flood control could come at the expense of recreation and wildlife.

In addition to those competing interests, Congress also requires the river be managed for purposes including irrigation, hydropower, water supply and water quality. As the governors look to the future, South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard warned that this year's danger isn't over yet.

Over the next 10 days we're going to see releases from Oahe and Gavin's Point start stepping down day after day after day for about an eight or nine day period," Daugaard said. "And if there is going to be a catastrophic failure of any levee, it probably could occur during that time."

Daugaard explained that's because as the river goes down and the weight of the water draws away from the levees, the supersaturated soils could slump. He urged people not be become complacent, and said it would be necessary to keep a vigilant eye on the levees.

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