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Management of Missouri River creates tension between governors

Monday, October 17, 2011 | 6:37 p.m. CDT

OMAHA, Neb. — A meeting of Missouri River governors Monday revealed significant disagreement between Montana and states further downstream over flood control, even as federal officials warned the group that damage from this year's high water may make their states even more vulnerable next year.

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer fought against a developing notion that flood control for states further down the river should dominate how reservoirs are managed upstream. He told governors of the downstream states that such a plan would lead to empty reservoirs, which are relied upon for recreation, wildlife and agriculture, in Montana when a drought hits.

Schweitzer, who allowed reporters in his office for what was expected to be a private meeting, phoned into the Omaha conference in which governors from Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota and South Dakota took part. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon was in the meeting by phone, and Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead sent representatives. The host, Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, clashed several times with Schweitzer during the meeting.

Afterward, Heineman told reporters in Omaha who were not allowed into the meeting that "the No. 1 thing we all agree to is flood control."

There was no unanimity on that topic during the meeting, however, after Schweitzer strongly challenged the notion of it as a priority.

Heineman and Schweitzer also clashed several times on whether Schweitzer was allowed to present data showing wild fluctuations in year-to-year water levels. The Montana governor alleged Heineman was not allowing its distribution, while Heineman told Schweitzer he should have attended in person.

"If you showed up here, you can bring all the damn data with you," Heineman told Schweitzer, who countered that he would not attend a "closed meeting" where reporters were not allowed.

Heineman suggested Schweitzer was "just looking for a fight and just making some noise."

A Heineman spokeswoman declined to elaborate on his comments during the meeting or say whether the other governors were aware that Schweitzer had let reporters attend.

The downstream governors, whose states saw historic Missouri River flooding this year, are trying to convince the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to make flood control the focus for the nation's longest river. The corps manages the 2,341-mile-long river, which flows from Montana through North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and Missouri.

Army Corps administrator Gen. John McMahon told the governors that it could cost $500 million to $1 billion to repair the system of levees, dams and other flood control systems damaged in this past year's flooding. He said Congress will need to appropriate the money and suggested the system could be modified greatly at that time to allow more controlled flooding as a way of preventing future breakthroughs.

McMahon also told the governors the full system won't be repaired by the time flood season strikes again in spring and will be "very vulnerable."

"It's going to be a dicey year," he said.

North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple also said the region could face a renewed flood risk because of expected below-average temperatures and saturated soil.

Heineman told reporters after the meeting that the five governors who came in person agree flood management should be their top priority to avoid a repeat of the summer flooding 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 facilities from the rising waters.

Schweitzer and the other river basin governors have tangled before. The Montana Democrat pulled out of a river meeting in August, telling The Associated Press at the time there was "no point" in attending because he felt the gathering was tilted in favor of the downriver states. Asked then about Schweitzer's position, Heineman stressed that he and the other six governors believed flood control should be the top river priority. The governors are all Republicans, except for Schweitzer and Nixon.

Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota signed a letter to their congressional delegations asking for more federal and state information-sharing. They also asked for an investigation of how the Army Corps handled the 2011 flood.

The five governors in Omaha presented reporters with a tentative proposal intended to limit next year's flood risk. The plan would have the Corps lower the water elevation at Garrison Dam, north of Bismarck, N.D., by 2.5 feet. Dalrymple said the plan would create an additional 750,000 acre-feet of storage space, and mark the first step in a more aggressive long-term flood-control policy.

Other downstream governors embraced that idea, although it was unclear if such a move would impede repair efforts stymied in places by water that is still high.

"Would it prevent something that happened this year? Of course not," Dalrymple said. "But we do need to look at an operating plan in context of what happened last year."

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said his state has suffered an estimated $207 million in crop damage and expressed concern that the high waters have weakened flood safeguards along the river. Branstad said every Iowa county along the river suffered some flood damage.

"One of our big concerns is obviously the need to focus on flood control, so we don't have another devastating flood that lasts as long as this one did," Branstad said.

Schweitzer voiced frustration that just a few years ago during a drought the downstream states were demanding that more water be released from reservoirs to float barges, a contentious fight at that time, and now they want even less water held in the reservoirs to allow for more flood control.

The Montana governor, at odds with his colleagues, pointed out they have no authority over the Army Corps anyway.

"I hope all of you guys understand you are a voice, but you have no power to make a decision here," Schweitzer told them.


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