WHAT OTHERS SAY: Congress must get Missouri River foes to work together

Tuesday, June 19, 2012 | 7:46 p.m. CDT

Last year at this time, following the melting of record snowpack and massive spring rains, the Missouri River was raging out of control.

This year? Not so much. Next year? Who knows?

Such are the challenges of river management. The country's national treasure must be managed to balance the needs of upstream states and downstream states, which have different needs in times of flood and times of drought.

Over the past year, we've argued repeatedly that one of the key policy changes necessary to improve management of the river is to give it more room to roam. It's a plan that can serve both environmental and business interests by reducing flooding disaster recovery costs and returning the river to its more natural state. If the plan were implemented effectively, it would improve the consistency of river flows and, thus, help farmers by making the river more predictable.

To make it happen, two things have to happen: Environmentalists and farmers have to stop seeing each other as the enemy. And three separate but related elements of insurance — flood insurance, crop insurance and levees — have to be seen as one integrated risk-management plan.

Two recent debates in Congress get to the heart of the problem:

  • Missouri Republican Rep. Sam Graves is seeking to redirect $21 million allocated for wildlife restoration along the Missouri River to flood-protection measures, such as rebuilding levees. Levees in his northwest Missouri district were overtopped last year.
  • The new farm bill being debated in the Senate contains an expanded crop insurance program that gives farmers incentives to plant crops on land unsuitable for high yields or in danger of being flooded regularly.

Both proposals are wrongheaded.

The process of wildlife restoration, which, in many cases, involves buying land near the river, is precisely the strategy that should be undertaken to protect farmers and urban dwellers from regular flooding. In fact, it's the precise strategy that the scientists who have studied the Missouri River's major floods have been encouraging since 1944.

Giving the river room to roam and protecting rich bottomland — important to Missouri and the nation because of its high yields — are not mutually exclusive concepts. Farmers need and deserve a fair balance of risk and reward. They don't want to give up their most-productive land, and they want protection from flooding that includes recompense after disasters.

To accomplish that goal, there must be give and take and coordination between the various forms of insurance that protect us from flooding.

The new farm bill gets the equation wrong. It subsidizes crop insurance to the point at which farmers have nothing to lose by planting crops on unproductive or flood-prone land. Combined with the push by Mr. Graves and others to take money from efforts to give the river more room to roam to rebuild levees, most of the effort is going into disaster recovery and none of it to preventing disaster or properly assessing risk.

A proper balance would mean that both farmers and urban developers give up some projects to better protect the areas now in danger of regular flooding. Congress should work toward this goal.

Reprinted with permission.

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