WASHINGTON • Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, who toured flood-ravaged areas of his state last week, is calling for “serious reforms” of the U.S. Corps of Engineers, including potentially “placing the Corps in another agency” of the federal government.–
Hawley, R-Mo., met privately with Corps officials this week and issued a scathing statement thereafter. He said he was “even more alarmed at the agency’s lack of clear priorities” and said that “agency leadership detailed eight different priorities, many in tension with one another, none of them integrated into a clear operating plan.”
A Corps official later responded that the agency’s “No. 1 priority in its operations is life safety.”
“Our current focus is to protect life, mitigate risks to flooding events, and repair damages due to the recent events in the (Missouri River) Basin,” said Maj. Gen. Scott Spellmon, deputy commanding general for civil and emergency operations for the Corps.
Hawley’s private meeting with Corps officials came after he raised concerns about flood control measures along Missouri’s swollen rivers in an oversight hearing with Army officials.
The Departments of the Interior or Transportation would be two potential agencies that could oversee the Corps under changes being discussed by Hawley and others.
The management of water flow in the Missouri and Mississippi River basins is not a new controversy for the Army Corps, but questions have escalated this spring as Nebraska has suffered serious flooding, and threats are coming to fruition in Missouri and other downstream states.
In issuing Spellmon’s response, the Corps also noted that it was “aware of Sen. Hawley’s comments and concerns,” and that Spellmon was among those briefing Hawley this week.
The Corps “operates its six Mainstem dams, as well as the Bank Stabilization and Navigation Project, for eight congressionally authorized purposes and consistent with all federal statutes,” the statement said.
Abundant winter precipitation and the ensuing floods prompted some Mississippi River mayors to warn that flooding in their cities could be as severe as 1993, when months of flooding caused $15 billion in damage and the loss of more than 50 lives.
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., said Tuesday that her state had already sustained $440 million in crop losses from flooded bins and other damage, and another $400 million in cattle losses from flooding along the Missouri and its tributaries.
“Once fertile land” is “now covered with sand, mud and unimaginably huge slabs of sludge and ice,” she said. About three fourths of her state is under federal disaster declaration.
In an interview, Hawley said he got an “earful” from farmers and others living along the Missouri River in the northwestern part of the state last week, who told him “how angry they were about how the Corps has managed the river — not just the last couple of weeks, but for years and years and years.
“Flood control is supposed to be the top priority, but it just isn’t,” he said.
In a statement issued after his meeting with Corps officials, Hawley complained that “the Corps is hamstrung on the one hand by radical environmentalist lobbyists that are forcing the agency to prioritize wildlife over farmers. This is made worse by the fact that Congress has failed to give the Corps a clear ranking of priorities or clear orders on how to achieve them.”
But, the Corps statement said that its “operations are governed by the Missouri River Master Manual, last updated in November 2018, developed in consultation with all Basin states, tribes and industry representatives.”
The Corps has been caught up for years in the currents of fierce political debates over river flow policies in the heavily-dammed Missouri, along with the need to protect wildlife while adhering to the needs of people who make their living off or near the river.
The flooding situation has been complicated as Congress has also struggled to come up with a reauthorization of a federal flood insurance program that is tens of billions of dollars in the red and has been constantly bailed out by taxpayers.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee, successfully amended a 2018 disaster assistance bill working its way through Congress to include those suffering flood damage this spring. But estimates of damage in Missouri have yet to be assessed, as some areas remain flooded or are bracing for more high water.
Flooding has left some farms in his state “completely devastated,” Blunt said.