Recent Missouri River Flooding Revives Concerns Over Flood Frequency

12:46PM Apr 01, 2019
The Missouri River rose to record-high levels last week, as ongoing flooding is becoming too frequent according to landowners.
( Farm Journal )

It was a fierce fight against the Missouri River last week, as residents of Carroll County, Missouri fought off a Missouri River that hit record levels.

“Where we’re at, it’s higher than 1993,” said Travis Matthews, a farmer in Carroll County, Mo.

“We’ve been working three days. The past two days have been extensive, pretty late nights. We’ve had a lot of good help, including volunteers from 60, 70 miles away.”

Some volunteers filled more than 90,000 sandbags, while others stood I the ice fold river water, hosing the record high water back.

“We thought we had it won the day before yesterday, but we showed up yesterday and it was overtopping by about a foot or a foot and a half,” said Matthews. “Then we got a small dip this morning, and I think it’s leveling off.”

As the river rose in a historic way, the only thing that saved farms, houses and more were the thousands of sandbags lining the levee. A feat even the Commander of the Kansas City District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) praised.

“I’m not a pessimist, but I woke up this morning figuring I would hear the levees had overtopped here and they haven’t, and they haven’t due to some incredible work in this community to rally and keep the water in the banks,” said Doug Guttormsen, Commander of Kansas City District of Army Corps of Engineers

Carroll County was able to hold off the river for now, but communities farther upstream weren’t so fortunate, as the river rose too high, too fast.

 “A federal levee that has never gone out, it’s gone over it and it broke that levee,” said Ken McCauley, a farmer in White Cloud, Kan. 

The massive flooding is hitting an area no stranger to rising water, but the flooding isn’t typical this time of year.

“That’s the big kicker right there, it’s never flooded this early, and that’s why there’s so much grain in bins getting spoiled, and they didn’t have a chance to get it out this year” 9:44:26

McCauley said the floods along the Missouri River are becoming more frequent.

“I’ve seen this four times now, and I never thought I’d see it more than once,” he said.

The frequency of the flood is something Polsinelli, a Kansas City-based law firm noticed and then decided to take action.

“Our lawsuit is against the United States of America, so the federal government, acting through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who has control over the Missouri River system,” said Seth Wright, Attorney with Polsinelli.

The plaintiffs in the ongoing lawsuit are farmers and land owners. The court case covers not only floods starting in 2007, but also future flooding, including the historic floods farmers in Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri are facing today.

“Unfortunately, for our clients and those who farm and live along the Missouri River Basin, this is now the new normal,” said Wright. “In our lawsuit, our experts found the flooding would be ongoing and would continue, and in fact it would get progressively worse.”

Wright said the water consuming thousands of acres of farmland today is proof the floods are becoming more frequent, and blames the USACE Master Water Control Manual, which includes priorities set by Congress.

“This is what happens when flood control is not the number one priority,” said Wright.  “We’ve seen a shift in priority away from flood control and in favor of other authorized purposes, namely fish and wildlife, and so the changes the Corps has made to the river as a part of the Missouri river recovery program is leading to the river not being able to carry the same volume of water, not having the same flood carry capacity that it had. What we’re seeing as a result is more flooding.”

Polsinelli’s lawsuit is not about wrong doing. Wright said the basis of the lawsuit is to compensate landowners for what they’ve lost in both past and future floods. Wright said the lawsuit is quickly growing in relevance.

“I think there was a lot of skepticism about our lawsuit when it first came out, and now, I think as we see as history goes on, unfortunately as these floods continue and get progressively worse, I think they’re seeing that we said was true,” said Wright.

Even though Polsinelli and the landowner defendants won the first phase of the lawsuit, that’s not enough to spark change. It now takes an Act of Congress.

“The only group who can effectuate change is the United States Congress,” said Wright.

While the lawsuit continues, with the second phase not set yet, farmers continue to fight flooding, and fear they’ll face flooding concerns all year.

“Our biggest concern is what’s coming in the next couple of weeks,” said Matthews. “With all this snow melt coming from the north, we’ve got two more months of this I’m afraid.”

“You’re looking at announced releases (from USACE) coming in the next few days with the river possibly going back up to flood stage again, and it’s flood stage now with levees broke,” said McCauley. “I don’t see it going down; your drainage ditches are plugged, the river won’t go down, its’ a real tragedy.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says more flooding isn’t inevitable, as the agency is managing the releases and river with flood levels in mind.

“I think there’s a little bit of wait and see to that,” said Guttormsen. “In the Kansas City district, we’ve held back the flows into the Kansas river, and we’ve intentionally restricted flows to allow this crest to go down and we won’t start flowing out of the Kansas reservoirs until the crest goes down. We’re doing the same up north, as well, but we’re not out of the woods yet.”

The continued flooding has farmers on edge, as the reality of a tough spring and growing season sets in.

“There’s a thousand acres right over there that’s under water, so, those farms will not get any corn planted on them,” said Matthews. “This farm we’re standing on will not get any corn planted on it.”

“I don’t see (the land currently under water) getting planted,” said McCauley. “In 1993 and 2011, those guys spent all summer repairing the fields, spending millions of dollars. So, they have all of that to do when the river does go down.”

Fertile farmland under water with more water on the way, as some land already sits victim to the flood of 2019.