KANSAS CITY — A boost in proposed spending for environmental projects along the Missouri River is angering farmers who claim last year's flooding is evidence that the spending focus needs to shift to flood protection. But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers disputes the idea that flood protection is taking a backseat to the environment.
The spending issue arose when President Barack Obama released a proposed budget last month that allots $90 million — up from $73 million in the last budget — for environmental projects, such as restoring some of the tens of thousands of acres of shallow-water habitat that disappeared when the river was dammed and straightened and its channel narrowed.
The courts have mandated environmental projects because, while changes to the river aided navigation and improved flood protection, the number of pallid sturgeon, piping plover and interior least tern have shrunk so much they are now listed under the Endangered Species Act.
"Frustration doesn't even begin to describe the feelings of those who have been flooded and have seen the budget for fish and wildlife drive the Missouri River decision-making process for far too long," said Tom Waters, chairman of the Missouri Levee and Drainage District Association, in a letter to Col. Anthony Hofmann, commander of the corps' Kansas City district.
Missouri Corn Growers Association President Billy Thiel called the ecosystem spending increase an "injustice" and said it "once again shows a disconnect still exists between those who manage the river and those who rely on it."
But Erik Blechinger, a corps official who has helped with post-flood recovery efforts along the river, said Wednesday in a widely-distributed email that over the past six years, the corps has spent $2 billion within the Missouri River basin and that just 20 percent of the total went toward environmental projects. He said environmental spending is required and that it doesn't reduce spending for other purposes.
He also stressed that hundreds of millions of dollars have been appropriated to fix Missouri River levees, dams and navigation structures busted last year after the corps began releasing massive amounts of water from upstream reservoirs. The resulting torrent easily overmatched earthen levees along the river.
"In a time when we need to come together (Tribes, Feds, States and locals) and put aside our differences to repair the Missouri River multipurpose reservoir and levee system so we are in the best possible posture to face what Mother Nature may bring us in the future, some are waging campaigns to tear at this very fabric of cooperation, collaboration, and open, honest and frank discourse," he said in the email.
But the corps' message that environmental projects aren't the problem is a hard sell in heavily damaged states. In Missouri alone, the Missouri River flooded 207,200 acres of cropland last year, and the Mississippi River flooded an additional 130,000 acres of mostly cropland when the Birds Point Floodway was intentionally breached to relieve pressure as floods threatened nearby Cairo, Ill.
The frustration over environmental spending led to a successful push last year by 9th District U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, for an amendment that suspended $4 million in funding for a Missouri River-focused ecosystem-restoration study.
Waters, of the levee association, favored suspending study funding. He acknowledges fish and birds need protection, but he says Obama's proposed budget includes too much for the environment.
"It's very contentious when folks are really trying to get their levees repaired and road blocks are thrown up, but yet when they talk about the fish and birds, money just flows in," he said.
Donald Tubbs, a farmer whose land in northwest Missouri's Holt County flooded last summer for the third time in five years, has sold 320 of his 1,400 acres to the corps to be used for ecosystem restoration. All but about 20 acres of the land he sold were covered with sand after the flooding.
"We could see the handwriting on the wall," he said of his decision to sell. "They were going to keep with the way they were running that river with the environmentalists ahold of it. I knew it was going to be just one flood after another."