Leaders of the Army Corps of Engineers got an earful Wednesday from a small panel of lawmakers and a separate contingent of witnesses concerned about the management of floodwaters along the Missouri River.
The hearing — chaired by Senate Environment and Public Works Committee member and Iowa Republican Joni Ernst — was convened in Glenwood, Iowa, a month after historic floodwaters pushed through Iowa, Nebraska, and surrounding states, devastating communities like Hamburg, Iowa.
“Only the ConAgra plant and our electrician can open,” Hamburg Mayor Cathy Crain said before listing a litany of businesses the community must currently do without. “There are no dry buildings for our businesses to move to. They’re underwater and City Hall is housed at the grade school with laptops and cell phones.”
Hamburg served as a case study for federal flood management shortcomings at the hearing, especially after the wave of floodwaters washed over where a temporary levee once stood. Crain said the emergency levee — which held back water during the 2011 flooding — had to be torn down when the town couldn’t pony up “the $5.6 million required to meet federal levee certification.”
“We didn’t raise enough, so we were required to tear down a levee that cost $8.6 million to build and spend another $675,000 to remove,” she said at the hearing.
That anecdote didn’t sit well with Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.
“It would have helped if it had still been there,” even if it wasn’t up to federal code, Grassley said. “There’s a lot of things that our government does that are not perfect, but we seem to get by with them.”
All four lawmakers in attendance — Grassley, Ernst, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. — expressed concern of their own at ACE management practices.
“The Army Corps must do better,” Gillibrand said. “They are too slow, too bureaucratic, and they don’t have enough money. We have to fix that.”
Scott Spellmon, the deputy commanding general for civil and emergency operations with the ACE, told Gillibrand the Corps has a $98 billion backlog in water infrastructure projects, about one third of which is made up of flood mitigation projects.
In an interview with Agri-Pulse after the hearing, Ernst encouraged a re-examination of the ACE Missouri River master manual and its eight functions for river management. Those functions are not listed in any certain priority, something Ernst wants to see changed.
“What we need to do is just establish from the get-go that flood management is key and that it should be a priority,” she said. “The life and safety of human beings should be prioritized over all.”
Grassley said ACE should prioritize flood control over endangered species protection, pressing ACE officials to explain whether Endangered Species Act requirements contributed to the flooding. Spellmon said a Court of Federal Claims initial decision last year found that some flooding in the lower Missouri River flood basin was the result of “operations for endangered species,” but some was not. That case is ongoing, but Grassley said it should come to an end.
“Why doesn’t the government quit fighting it and just pay up?” Grassley implored.
Mostly absent from the hearing was talk of a supplemental disaster appropriations package that stalled before lawmakers adjourned for a two-week recess last week. Ernst said she hoped Gillibrand would be able to relay information discussed at the hearing with Senate Democrats who voted against moving the disaster assistance bill.
“There’s a lot riding on this disaster package, and we need to see it move as quickly as possible,” she said. “We do think there is a way forward with a number of Democrats in the Senate. If we can find that sweet spot, we should be able to move a package. We just need the president’s assistance with that.”
“If we can get it through the Senate, hopefully the House will see the value in getting it done quickly and send it to the president,” she added.
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