As the devastating images of flooded farmland, drowning livestock and underwater grain bins fill your social media news feed, your heart breaks for those affected. Weather is inevitable, yet the government’s management of the nation’s river and dam system by prioritizing fish and wildlife preservation instead of flood control has had a lasting effect.
In a case decided in March 2018, Ideker Farms et al. vs. United States of America, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., ruled in favor of 372 plaintiffs, including farmers, landowners and business owners, that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was liable for causing recurrent flooding and damaging farms in four states along the Missouri River.
In 2004, the Corps made a critical shift in the management of the Missouri River to restore its ecosystem and benefit and create habitat for threatened and endangered species. The action was a result of environmental groups suing the Corps for not protecting species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Corps intentionally permitted the flooding in 2011 in order to further its highest priority (as per the Master Water Control Manual) of "habitat restoration" at the expense of the original top priority: flood control and preservation of human life and property.
The court found that notching dikes and revetments, as well as reopening the historic chutes, which allows the river to meander and erode the bank, created potential impacts from floods. These changes to the river, coupled with increased reservoir storage and releases of threatened and endangered species from the dams during high river stages below the dams, served to cause or contribute to cause flooding in 2007, 2008, 2010, 2013, 2014 and since then.
Roger Ideker, a St. Joseph, Mo., farmer and lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, said those involved in the case think the magnitude of this particular event occurring now is greater because of the way the Corps is managing the upstream dams. The deterioration of the river and lack of capacity in the river from what it had prior to 2004 continues to create ongoing stress when weather events do occur.
“We know it rains, and we get a lot of snowmelt. Our position here is if we had flood control as priority number one before the new master manual came out, we would have less high water than we do now. Sometimes, inches matter on these flood events,” Ideker said.
“This river continues to flood or have high water a lot. It’s not Mother Nature turning against us; it’s more evolved,” Ideker added.
From the completion of the dam construction in 1967 until 2004, the Master Water Control Manual listed the priority functions in order of importance, with flood control being number one:
1. Flood control;
2. Irrigation and upstream beneficial uses;
3. Downstream water supply;
4. Navigation and power, and
5. Recreation and wildlife.
In 2004, under pressure from environmentalist organizations that had been lobbying hard for a decade, Congress approved a revision to the manual that no longer prioritized the uses of the system, leaving the order of the functions to the discretion of the Corps.
Seth Wright, attorney at Polsinelli who represents the farmers in the lawsuit, said he recognizes that the Corps is in a hard spot in trying to serve both sides at the same time, responding to court cases and congressional direction to take into account fish and wildlife while also offering flood control.
Yet, the experts who testified during the trial and were agreed to by the judge said once you see flooding, it will continue to happen unless changes are made, and flooding will get progressively worse, which is what those in the area are experiencing right now.
Wright said the government will try to claim that this is just weather or even that it’s catastrophic events, but if dams were releasing water in February, March or April in previous years, that would offer more storage for flood control.
“Clearly, weather plays a factor. You cannot have flooding without water. The question has to do with rain, water and runoff and what happens to the water once it gets into the system. The river can no longer handle the same water it used to because of changes made to the river,” Wright added.
Ideker said this should be a wakeup call for politicians and emphasized, “We need Congress to tell the Corps the river should go back to operating as it was before 2004, when flood control was the number-one priority, just as it was when dams were initially built and levees built with taxpayer money.” Businesses, as well as farmers, along the valley continue to see a negative economic detriment resulting from the Corps management of the river.
“People who live out here will continually have these problems. The judge said so in her verdict. Long term, the priorities needs to be changed,” Ideker said.
Vice President Mike Pence was in Nebraska this week to view the damage, but it's time to see the damage as more than just a catastrophic weather event. The impact could have been at least partially mitigated.
It’s time for Congress to step in. The livelihood of those along the river system is at stake.