KANSAS CITY — Legislation in the U.S. Senate seeks to prevent the Army Corps of Engineers from offering to buy land during flooding — something that happened in June, when farmers in Missouri and Iowa received letters from the agency even as the corps was increasing the water level in the Missouri River.
The corps sent some of the letters just days after it began releasing massive amounts of water from upstream reservoirs that had filled to overflowing with record runoff from rain and heavy snowpack. The deluge topped levees along the Missouri River, cutting ruts in the land and leaving 10-foot high sand dunes where crops once grew. The corps has said the timing of the letters was a coincidence and a mistake.
However, Sen. Claire McCaskill said Wednesday that the letters were "unbelievably inappropriate and rude." The Missouri Democrat introduced an amendment Tuesday that would prohibit the corps from sending such letters during a flood event. Missouri's other senator, Republican Roy Blunt, signed on as a co-sponsor.
"Roy and I believe that is appropriate that we make sure that under the law, they cannot try to hit people up when they are at their most vulnerable moment," she said.
The corps said previously that the proposal to buy the land had nothing to do with the flooding and that it was seeking land to rebuild wildlife habitats. The agency said most of the letters went out before the flooding started. But some were dated June 6, well after the flooding began.
The agency declined to discuss the letters further Wednesday.
McCaskill said she had no reason to doubt that the timing was a mistake. But she added: "The right hand should have known what the left hand was doing, and someone should have taken a time out for common sense and realized that this was ill-conceived and the timing was terrible."
Bruce Biermann said water was inundating bottom land when he received a letter from the corps expressing interest in land he farms for absentee landowners in northwest Missouri's Holt County.
"I was very upset, very upset," he said. "It's kind of like if I came to you and for some reason I liked your house and wanted to buy it. But you told me it wasn't for sale. So I turn around and set your house on fire and go ahead and while your house is burning come to you and say, 'Your house is burning. Do you want to sell it?'"
Blunt and McCaskill have each co-sponsored a handful of amendments to the energy and water appropriations bill being debated by Congress. One is aimed at making it easier for communities to rebuild levees damaged during flooding; another would prioritize funding from the Missouri River Recovery Program to flood control efforts; and a third would stop the Army Corps of Engineers from offering to buy flooded properties.
All three amendments face uncertain paths to becoming law. While bipartisan support will boost their prospects, flood funding and river politics are notoriously state-to-state issues that often transcend party line votes. Besides being voted down by Congress, the amendments could also be ruled as unrelated to the legislation and stripped from the larger funding bill.
Residents of flood-ravaged communities have been clamoring for relief. Even before this year, many were angry about the corps' effort to buy land for wildlife restoration efforts because that takes the land off the tax rolls.
The corps already owns 8,000 acres of land in Holt County, a low-lying area with 52 miles of levees. This year, the county experienced 32 breeches, inundating more than 120,000 acres for more than 100 days, said County Clerk Kathy Kunkel.
She fears more landowners will sell now that their land has flooded for the fourth time in five years. She said some residents blame the corps and believe it is flooding the land to encourage people to sell it.
"There is honestly a sentiment here that these people being willing sellers is kind of like describing someone who has been waterboarded as giving a willing confession because this has been going on for years," Kunkel said. "The issue has been, 'Well do you want to sell your ground? OK, we'll just have another flood and put some more water on you.'"