WHAT OTHERS SAY: River Working Group must overcome partisan pressure

Wednesday, July 20, 2011 | 5:12 p.m. CDT; updated 10:53 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 24, 2011

Amid the din of partisan rancor emanating from Washington, D.C., these days, it's impossible to underestimate the value and importance of a recent meeting among senators from seven Missouri River states.

Call it the Gang of 14, to use a Beltway term.

This bipartisan group of 14 senators from Missouri, North Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Montana, South Dakota and Kansas hopes to succeed where generations of senators before them have failed.

The goal of the Missouri River Working Group is to fix the management of the Missouri River in the wake of another historic flood in the heartland.

Their challenge will be to stick together as both partisan and regional pressures seek to rip them apart, as the river has done to so many levees this spring and summer.

The group was gathered under the leadership of Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Kent Conrad, D-N.D. That the two states, Missouri and North Dakota, that have been most at odds during decades of river fights are taking the lead bodes well for the group's chances of success.

The pitfalls already are clear.

Before the senators met for the first time to lay the groundwork for cooperation, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad had muddied the waters with a letter to lower-basin states suggesting that they forge their own solution in light of this year's record flooding.

To bypass the upper-basin states is the wrong approach. Division has been the highlight of river debates since the Pick-Sloan Plan was developed in 1944. The flood of 2011 should be the force that brings the basin states together.

The working group is off to a good start. Mr. Branstad should follow the lead of his fellow Iowan, Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican, who said after the first meeting: "This kind of unity should lead to real progress."

That progress must include compromises from each state. Not least among those would be a willingness by Missouri politicians to accept widening the river in some areas, which likely would reduce navigation possibilities north of Kansas City and a willingness from North Dakota officials to accept lower reservoir levels to increase flood protection.

But those big decisions will come later, after the senators and their staffs continue to meet and develop the trust that will be necessary to block out the corrosive forces of regional and partisan politics.

The group has requested a hearing on the Missouri River flooding from Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. The first hearing would examine the root causes of the flood, likely a combination of unprecedented weather patterns and a Army Corps of Engineers manual that doesn't make flood control a high enough priority.

Reasoned, independent fact-finding must be the first goal, followed by an examination of shared goals that can lead to a better, more unified management plan for one of our nation's most precious resources.

Throughout the arduous process of balancing competing interests, the Gang of 14 must steel themselves against forces that will work to divide them.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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