OMAHA, Neb. — Governors from several states hit by this year’s historic overflowing of the Missouri River pledged Friday to work together for the first time to convince the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to make flood control its top priority for the nation’s longest river.
The top executives from seven states signed a letter during a meeting in Omaha that asks the federal agency to review its river management practices and make recommendations to improve flood control along the 2,341-mile-long river. The corps manages the river, which flows from Montana through North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and Missouri.
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer said he opted not to attend the meeting and has refused to sign the letter. Schweitzer told the Associated Press he felt the meeting was tilted in favor of downriver states that want to focus solely on flood mitigation and navigation at the expense of recreation and wildlife.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback acknowledged that upstream and downstream states often clash about river management, but he said this year’s floods convinced most to join forces and push for flood control.
Governors are meeting in Omaha to discuss ways to avoid a repeat of this year’s destructive floods that submerged thousands of acres of farmland, forced residents from their homes and rerouted trains and motorists. Some cities, including Omaha, spent millions of dollars trying to protect airports, water treatment plants and other infrastructure from the rising waters.
Some of the governors have said they would push for better flood control, and experts have warned that broader, long-term flood prevention will require economic sacrifices from individual states and a new approach to controlling the nation’s longest river.
The Missouri has been overflowing for months because of heavy Rocky Mountain snowpack and a rainy spring.
Schweitzer was scheduled to meet with governors and representatives from the seven other river states in Omaha to discuss options for keeping the river in its banks. He said he decided Thursday not to attend, partly because of ongoing Montana forest fires and because he’s frustrated that downriver governors want to focus solely on flood mitigation and navigation.
“The direction of this meeting has gone in a way that there wouldn’t be much of a point in me attending,” Schweitzer told the AP. “I am not signing that letter,” he later added. “You would have to knock me down, tie me up, kick me, and have a big dog bite me. I still wouldn’t sign it.”
Schweitzer said he also objected to the decision to close the meeting to the press. The governor said he had prepared a PowerPoint presentation to show how Montana was able to anticipate flood levels months in advance but was told he could not show it at the gathering.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers controls six dams along the river, from Fort Peck in northeast Montana to Gavins Point in the southeast corner of South Dakota. Brigadier Gen. John R. McMahon, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Northwest District, also was to attend. A corps spokeswoman has cautioned against demanding sweeping changes based on one flood season.
Holding less water in upstream dams would mean less water for boating and fishing in upriver states, and fewer reserves during summer dry periods that could be hard for wildlife, worsen dry-year drought conditions in Kansas and Nebraska, severely limit barge traffic and reduce hydropower generation, said Tim Cowman, director of the Vermillion, S.D.-based Missouri River Institute, which studies the river basin.
In interviews ahead of the meeting, governors and other state officials said they expected to unite around safeguards such as levee repairs and improved river-level gauges. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has said he would call lawmakers into a special session to develop a plan to repair and rebuild hundreds of miles of flood-damaged levees.
Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, who is hosting his fellow governors, said that the scale of this year’s flooding should convince states to find common ground.
“I think you’re going to see a more united front than ever before between the upstream states and the downstream states,” Heineman said, adding that the flooding affected “homes, farms, ranches, businesses, power facilities … from North Dakota all the way down to Kansas and Missouri.”
Farming advocates say their industry has taken a backseat and want levees repaired to protect farmland. Iowa farmer Leo Ettleman, spokesman for Farmers for Responsible River Management, said flooding this year ruined more than two-thirds of the 2,300 acres he farms with his son.
“The entire system was built for flood control,” he said. “Fish and wildlife issues have really dominated the scene in recent years. Agriculture didn’t have a big enough voice. This recreation stuff is great, but there’s got to be a happy medium here.”
The Missouri River ran largely untamed until the 1950s, when dams were built as part of a nationwide effort to control and harness the power of waterways. When Congress approved plans for the dams, lawmakers required the Army Corps of Engineers to maintain the river for flood control, navigation, irrigation, power generation, municipal and industrial water supplies, recreation and wildlife preservation.