Blunt Warns of Vulnerable Mo River Levees; Blames Earmarks Demise for Disrepair
June 7, 2011
Worries about levees grow as huge pulses of water are released from Missouri River dams.
WASHINGTON • The raging waters headed down the Missouri River could overtop several dozen levees in Missouri, generating new questions about levee maintenance and the government’s role in flood protection.
Sen. Roy Blunt told reporters today that as many 40 Missouri levees could be overtopped by huge releases of water from Gavins Point Dam in South Dakota as the Army Corps of Engineers copes with a river system overflowing from mountain snowmelt and heavy rains.
(Blunt’s office, citing corps projections, later raised the worst-case scenario to 52 levees overtopped.)
“The way this year is going, the worst-case scenario very well might happen,” he remarked, alluding to the Joplin tornado and flooding in southeast Missouri.
Blunt said he expects the lower river to reach “crisis stage” over the weekend. Corps officials said last night that they intend to ramp up the flow from Gavins Point to 130,000 cubic feet per second today and 140,000 cfs on Wednesday. The schedule is similar at dams upriver.
By mid-June, the Gavins Point releases will reach 150,000 cfs and remain at that level into August.
On May 1, the corps was planning a peak Gavins Point release of 60,000 cfs. It takes about a week for water from Gavins Point Dam to reach the Mississippi River above St. Louis.
Responding to a question, Blunt declined to second-guess the corps’ plans. In South Dakota, the corps is being criticized for failing to start its releases earlier.
“I’m not sure they could have released a lot earlier because a lot of this depended on when the snow started melting,” Blunt said.
But, he added: “There’s not nearly enough focus being given on the levee system generally.”
Blunt attributed part of the problem to reduced appropriations to the corps, adding that government spending generally is “overwhelmed by the entitlement side of the budget.”
He later added his belief that the recent shift away from earmarks — otherwise known as congressionally directed spending — has changed how Army engineers approach their tasks along navigable rivers.
Until recently, members of Congress favoring corps projects back home, such as levee repair, simply inserted those projects in spending bills.
“A lot of what the corps has done, most of what the corps has done, has been at the specific direction of Congress,” Blunt said.
The earmark moratorium, he said, “significantly changes the way the corps does business. Dredging ports was more often than not done by having a specific item in the bill so that the Corps of Engineers had this much money to dredge this port; the Corps of Engineers had this much money to repair this levee.
“None of that money has shown up for the corps in the last couple of years because that (earmark) practice has stopped, and the corps hasn’t figured out a new way of doing business,” Blunt continued.
“We’ve got to be sure we’re maintaining our infrastructure whether it’s the levee system, or the highway system or the dredging system,” he added.