LINCOLN, Neb. – Months of historic flooding have governors along the Missouri River ready to join forces, but experts warn that real change will require unpopular sacrifices and a new approach to controlling the nation's longest river.
Releasing water from reservoirs earlier and allowing the river to expand naturally would solve many of the problems, but there's a tradeoff: Doing so could push fishermen out of Montana's prized streams earlier, force farmers from the Dakotas to Missouri to give up land for floodplains, and limit barges hauling grain and other goods.
Governors from most of the eight river states will meet Friday in Omaha, Neb., to discuss options for keeping the river in its banks. Brigadier Gen. John R. McMahon, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers northwest district, also will attend, but agency spokeswoman Sarah Rivette cautioned against demanding sweeping changes based on one flood season.
The Missouri, which travels 2,341 miles, has been overflowing for months because of heavy Rocky Mountain snowpack and a rainy spring. Flooding has forced residents from their homes, submerged thousands of acres of farmland, and rerouted motorists and trains. Cities, including Omaha, have spent millions of dollars to protect airports, water treatment plants and other facilities.
"This is a 1,700-mile flood — extraordinary — and we're all frustrated with it, and so our focus tomorrow is going to be to get a united front as Missouri River basin governors on the operation of the Missouri River reservoir system," Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback said Thursday.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers controls six dams along the river, from Fort Peck in northeast Montana to Gavins Point in the southeast corner of South Dakota.
Holding less water in upstream dams would mean less water for boating and fishing in upriver states, and fewer reserves during summer dry periods that could be hard for wildlife, worsen dry-year drought conditions in Kansas and Nebraska, severely limit barge traffic and reduce hydropower generation, said Tim Cowman, director of the Vermillion, S.D.-based Missouri River Institute, which studies the river basin.
"Eventually, nature will overpower what we've done to protect ourselves from the river," Cowman said. "How does that translate into what we do along the river?"
Should channels be widened? Should reservoirs' spring target levels be lowered?
Such questions will likely come up Friday. In interviews ahead of the meeting, governors and other state officials said they expect to unite around safeguards such as levee repairs and improved river-level gauges. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has said he would call lawmakers into a special session to develop a plan to repair and rebuild hundreds of miles of flood-damaged levees.
Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, who is hosting his fellow governors, said that the scale of this year's flooding should convince states to find common ground.
"I think you're going to see a more united front than ever before between the upstream states and the downstream states," Heineman said, adding that the flooding "impacted homes, farms, ranches, businesses, power facilities ... from North Dakota all the way down to Kansas and Missouri."
However, governors have promised in the past to work together to prevent flooding without much progress, said J. Michael Hayden, executive director of the Missouri River Association of States and Tribes. Hayden pointed to a report written after the river flooded in 1993 that warned of too many roads, railroads and other infrastructure in the flood plain.
"Nobody really listened," Hayden said. "Since then, there's been tremendous development all the way from Pierre to Bismarck to Dakota Dunes to Sioux City. Of course, now, it's devastating."
And it may be difficult to bridge differences in the states' priorities. In Montana, for example, Gov. Brian Schweitzer said he tried to warn downstream states about Montana's huge snowpack this year, but ultimately, downstream flooding isn't his problem.
"It's not about flood control in Montana," Schweitzer said. "It's recreation, hydroelectricity. It's about irrigation."
Farming advocates say their industry has taken a backseat and want levees repaired to protect farmland. Iowa farmer Leo Ettleman, spokesman for Farmers for Responsible River Management, said flooding this year ruined more than two-thirds of the 2,300 acres he farms with his son.
"The entire system was built for flood control," he said. "Fish and wildlife issues have really dominated the scene in recent years. Agriculture didn't have a big enough voice. This recreation stuff is great, but there's got to be a happy medium here."
The Missouri River ran largely untamed until the 1950s, when dams were built as part of a nationwide effort to control and harness the power of waterways. When Congress approved plans for the dam, lawmakers required the Army Corps of Engineers to maintain the river for flood control, navigation, irrigation, power generation, municipal and industrial water supplies, recreation and wildlife preservation.
So any ideas floated by the governors will likely need support from Congress. But some critics doubt that any plan would get that far.
Mike Cooper, owner of the Cooper's Landing River Port Marina in Columbia, Mo., acknowledged that changing river flow could hurt his business. He said he'd be willing to make sacrifices if the burden was shared up and down the river, but he noted that past post-flood meetings have yielded few results.
"It will be just like it's been in the past," Cooper said. "They'll form some committee, make a few recommendations, and then it'll become a lost memory and nothing will happen. Everybody takes such a narrow view."
Plus, interest could wane if river levels drop.
Rivette, the corps spokeswoman, recalled not so long ago when the issue was low river flows, not flooding.
"Four years ago, we barely had enough water to do anything," she said. "Now we're at the complete opposite end."
Associated Press writer John Hanna contributed from Topeka, Kan.