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Editorial: GAO study on Missouri River is good idea, if Congress listens

Editorial: GAO study on Missouri River is good idea, if Congress listens

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A bipartisan group of U.S. senators trying to prevent a repeat of the Missouri River Flood of 2011 took a significant step last week, asking the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office to examine the causes of the massive flood and recommend changes, if necessary, to the master manual that guides the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in managing the river.

The senators, however, should be careful what they wish for. Based on past GAO reports about the nation's river operations, they might not like what they hear.

During the last massive flood in the Missouri River basin in 1993, Congress asked the GAO to report on the corps' operations. At the time, the river had been suffering through a long drought, and lower-basin states, led by Missouri, used political pressure to make sure that the flow of water headed toward St. Louis was unabated, ostensibly to support the river's use for navigation.

The 1993 study found that the economics of the river had completely changed. Navigation along the Missouri was minimal, while recreation along the reservoirs in Montana and the Dakotas had become worth hundreds of millions of dollars per year.

Missouri politicians, led by then-Sen. Christopher S. "Kit" Bond, weren't ready to accept those findings. They didn't want to see barge navigation and the powerful farm lobby lose their clout

The 2011 flood turned the 1993 study on its head. This year the problem wasn't drought, but an abundance of snow-pack runoff that created the problems. And it wasn't the lower basin, but the reservoir states in the northern Midwest, that suffered the most significant consequences.

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So here we are, once again, seeking answers after flooding.

The good news, as we have been highlighting in our One River, One Problem series, is that most of the basin state politicians are singing from the same hymnal. Thirteen senators, including Missouri's Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, and Roy Blunt, a Republican, signed the Dec. 7 letter asking the GAO to study the causes of the flood.

In today's dysfunctional, partisan Washington, D.C., it is quite an accomplishment to get 13 senators of both parties to agree on anything.

But what happens if the GAO finds, as it did in a study of this year's Mississippi River flooding released Dec. 9, that the corps' attempts to fortify navigation channels might have contributed to rising flood waters? Or that the corps is continuing to give only lip-service to the idea that part of its task in managing the river must be to avoid harming the environment?

We wonder: How will Midwestern senators react if the GAO finds similar problems with corps' management of the Missouri River?

We suspect the GAO will find what scientists studying the Big Muddy have suggested over and over again: The river needs room to roam. It needs more room to spread out. It needs fewer constraints from navigational elements such as dikes and chevrons that increase river levels and the rate of destruction when it floods.

If the GAO reaches this conclusion, will Congress listen? We hope so.

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