Something foul in the water

Feb 10, 2012

It’s been eight months since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released massive amounts of reservoir water from locations north of the Missouri River. Those reservoirs were filled to the brim with historic rainwater and melted snow that accumulated over a long winter of inclement weather across the Midwest.

Most of that released water poured over valuable farmland and residential areas in northwest Missouri. The resulting financial and family devastation has opened up a huge Missouri-style feud that will likely last as long as it will take the flooded land to return to normal.

Farmers who work river-bottom land generally think the Corps does not have their best interests at heart; the Corps says it is doing its best with the funding that’s been made available from the federal government. Then there are the scientists and conservationists who believe the river is better off without military-grade, man-made control. And for good measure throw in that farmers generally do not like river management ideas from environmentalists.

I got to observe the emotional fallout recently at the 2012 Missouri Governor’s Conference on Agriculture in a big hotel ballroom in Kansas City, Mo. In a session titled “Rain, Rivers and Resources,” many of the key stakeholders came together for an uncomfortable – though enlightening – discussion.

It was moderated by the jovial Blake Hurst, who is president of the Missouri Farm Bureau and a vocal supporter of farmers whose land is still ruined from the flooding.

As Hurst opened the dialogue, he referred to a man onstage who has been at the center of managing the flood on the government side, and who also is the target of criticism from the Missouri agriculture community. It was U.S. Army Corps Brigadier General John R. McMahonin casual Corps regalia.

“I thought it would be important to look up his title in other languages, and I chose Spanish,” Hurst said as he introduced McMahon.  “If you look up in a Spanish-English dictionary, Brigadier General John R. McMahon, head of the Northwestern Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the word that comes back is: ‘piñata.’”

McMahon reminded the audience of mostly farmers that he has frequently apologized for the flooding devastation. He then focused on the facts, which is, he said, how the Army Corps prefers to handle disaster situations.

“I think we have a responsibility to understand the facts,” McMahon qualified. “Not blow things out of proportion, leverage emotions, and all the other things that quite frankly have occurred throughout the event and as we proceed with the recovery.”

He said the local levee system was actually never completed to original Corps plans, and last year these structures were overwhelmed by 20 percent more runoff than the levees were built to control. The excessive water had to go somewhere. (This is where farmers struggle to accept the decisions made by the Corps.) With the reservoirs holding off the runoff almost at capacity, the Corps began releasing water from dams along the river. McMahon said the levee system below could not hold back that extra flow of powerful water, and farmland was flooded.

“We decided this was the best strategy, and this was the one we executed for all the right reasons,” he said.

Many didn’t agree with that strategy. But now, eight months later, the criticism is focused on funding the cleanup and updating the outdated and now crippled river system. Finding the money at the federal level for flooding aid and levee rebuilding has been a major roadblock in getting farmers back on the land.

What’s more, many Missouri farmers might not get federal flooding aid. The Kansas City Starreported in January:

Farmers whose land was damaged by Missouri River flooding expressed frustration Friday that a missed deadline will keep them from sharing in $215 million from one federal disaster program. Farmers and communities had to apply for the aid by June 30, but many still had land under water then and couldn’t do a required damage assessment. Water didn’t recede from many farms in Iowa, Nebraska and Missouri until late September or early October.

Tom Waters outlined the picture with a little bit of simple math.

Waters, president of the Missouri Levee & Drainage Association, said there have been insurance claims from flooding on more than 600,000 acres. And 100,000 acres of Missouri River bottom land can produce enough calories to feed 1 million people for a year, Waters reasoned, so the total lost acreage could have fed over 6 million people.

“Those are huge numbers,” Waters said. “They have to be considered.”

Waters then analyzed the situation further by asking the audience to consider protected sandbar habitats along the river, and how much is spent to protect the wildlife that has a home there.

“If you take the amount of money they spent on the sandbar habitat, and divide it by the number of birds that hatched and left the nest, you come up with a figure of $23,000 per bird,” Waters said, drawing laughter from the crowd. “We have a lot of farmers who struggle to make $23,000 of profit.”

Waters broke it down again, and calculated the value of each pound of these birds by comparing it to the cost of a different sort of fowl you might find in a supermarket.

“One bird, is worth $165,555 a pound,” he explained. “Compare that to your steak in downtown Kansas City.”

The audience broke in with applause as Waters delivered his final calculation.

The farmer in his 60s who was sitting next to me hardly moved over that hour and a half session, and now he leaned forward with his hands resting on his knees. According to Waters’ math, each bird hatched and protected on Missouri River sandbars are worth 6.8 times the value of gold. Compare that, he said, to the $6 million allocated for operation and maintenance throughout the Missouri River levee system.