Corps short on Missouri River levee-repair money


December 13th, 2011 by Ric Hanson

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. (AP) — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced Monday that it has money available so far to fix only 11 of 68 Missouri River levees and is draining extra water from upstream reservoirs to nurse the flood-battered system through 2012. The damaged levees are in Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas, officials announced during a meeting of the Missouri River Flood Task Force in suburban Kansas City. About half are federal levees and the other half are part of a program in which the corps helps pay for flood repairs if the levees pass routine inspections. “The reality is that not all damages can be repaired this year because of funding and time limitations,” said Brig. Gen. John R. McMahon, commander of the corps’ northwestern division office.

The $68 million available is only sufficient to help pay for the 11 most crucial projects. The goal is to fix those levees at least enough to protect against a 25-year flood, although many provided 100-year flood protection previously, said John Leighow, chief of the readiness and contingency operations division in the northwestern division of the corps. It would cost $253 million to make all the Missouri River Basin repairs. That money is part of the more than $2 billion the corps estimates it needs to repair the damage to the nation’s levees, dams and riverbanks caused by this year’s excessive flooding. A supplemental appropriation bill is stalled in Congress, and the corps has been focusing its limited money on fixing levees that protect communities and facilities such as water treatment plants. For now, the corps has been shuffling money around in its existing budget to pay for the levee fixes, Leighow said. “We are trying to be in the best possible position come March 1,” he said.

One step the corps has taken to help is to wait an extra week to drop to lower winter-release levels on the Missouri River, allowing it to empty extra water from the six upstream reservoirs. The corps has been stepping down the releases slowly and plans to hit the target level Wednesday. “We don’t anticipate that we will have a repeat of this year next year,” said Jody Farhat, chief of the corps’ Missouri River Basin Water Management office. “But the system is vulnerable and that is why we are releasing this additional water. The levees aren’t repaired, so having some additional storage … may allow us more flexibility to operate next summer.”

Water levels must be dropped in winter to avoid flood-causing ice jams, but this year’s mild fall weather allowed the corps to delay the reductions. Besides the helpful fall weather, Farhat also found hope in the relatively light snowpack. “It’s still very, very early,” she said. “There is some snow out there, but isn’t as heavy as going into last winter or the winter before it.”