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Editorial: Time to give the Missouri River room to roam

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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers this week is playing rope-a-dope with its critics as it listens to flood-weary Midwestern farmers and residents wanting answers about why the Missouri River flood of 2011 was so bad.

If the corps' first meeting in Omaha, Neb., on Monday night was any indication, expect few answers and no changes from the corps in protecting the Missouri River basin states from flooding next year. The corps may just let the public punch itself out.

Frankly, this is to be expected, and that's not necessarily a criticism of the corps.

This year's flood was epic upriver from St. Louis because Mother Nature chose to combine a record rainfall with a record snowpack. The corps' outdated Master Manual for balancing the various needs along the river hasn't been updated to account for climate change, population growth or shifting priorities.

So while residents of Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Montana and the Dakotas will have angry words for the corps over the next week, the real action will be in Washington, D.C., where senators, led by Republican Roy Blunt and Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri, have begun to plan for the future.

It is up to Congress to give the corps new marching orders to better protect the Midwest from increasingly powerful floods brought on by a combination of climate change and man's folly in thinking that he could contain the river.

The most important advice from the first hearing on the future of Missouri River flood control came from Nicholas Pinter, a geology professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale who has been studying U.S. river management for more than 15 years.

Mr. Pinter's advice to the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works was to look to the Dutch:

"When climate research in The Netherlands predicted a 12.5 percent increase in flood volumes later in the 21st century, the Dutch government responded with an aggressive and forward-thinking policy of 'Room for the Rivers,' investing heavily in giving rivers more room to safely convey flood flows. At present, the U.S. remains on the opposite path — continuing to constrict our river channels and allowing steady encroachment onto our flood plains."

Now is the time to offer to buy farmland before flood waters rise again. It's time to choose which levees get rebuilt and which are destroyed to give the river the room it demands. It's time to forget about keeping reservoirs artificially high for recreation and rebuilding downstream navigational structures that narrow the river and boost its flow.

These are not decisions the corps can or will make overnight or even before next year's flood season. But if politicians from the basin states are serious about making flood control the No. 1 priority in managing the river, this must be the direction of U.S. policy.

Missourians can take that message to Jefferson City on Thursday when the corps holds an open house from 1 to 4 p.m. and a public meeting at 7 p.m. at the Capitol Plaza Hotel.

Tell the corps to ask Congress to give the river room to flow.

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