Governors from the Dakotas to Missouri washed away decades of bickering over the Missouri River with a united front Friday that nothing else matters more than flood control.
They pledged in Omaha to put excuses and parochial disagreements — such as navigation vs. recreation — behind them as they focused on avoiding another disaster like the Flood of 2011.
The chief executives said, in effect, that they wanted no more sandbagging.
“Flood control must be the highest priority,'' said Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman. “We, as governors, are united in this effort.''
The governors signed a letter calling on the Army Corps of Engineers to examine what happened this year and report back on what it can do to reduce flood damage in the future.
Heineman described the agreement as “adding a margin of safety'' for 2012.
Besides Heineman, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple, South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard, Iowa Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and a representative of Wyoming Gov. Matthew Mead attended the meeting.
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer planned to attend but pulled out in frustration that flood control could mean “draining'' his state's Fort Peck reservoir each fall.
“They might be united, but they're not united without Montana,'' he said in a telephone interview. “I wasn't going to sign that letter and they knew that.''
Schweitzer said downriver governors' focus on flood mitigation and navigation costs Montana millions of dollars in recreation and economic development.
Heineman said Schweitzer's decision not to join the other basin governors doesn't scuttle the initiative.
“You've got seven governors united in this effort,'' he said. “That's very significant.''
He said the consensus was unprecedented.
The governors met behind closed doors in a Gallup University conference room. They overlooked the Mighty Mo flowing past piles of sandbags and lines of riprap protecting the riverfront campus. It was the 88th day of the flood.
Missouri's Nixon said the letter was a milestone between upstream and downstream states that have fought each other in courts and Congress over using the tightly harnessed river.
“This is a significant shift,'' he said.
He said feuding states have used their disagreements as an excuse to do nothing.
“Everybody here gave up a little bit to move forward together,'' Nixon said.
The most recent court case said flood control and navigation should be the corps' top priorities in operating its six big reservoirs on the river from Montana to Nebraska.
Congress also has told the corps to operate the river for hydropower, irrigation, recreation, water supply, water quality and fish and wildlife, including endangered species.
Brownback of Kansas said all the uses of the river are worthy, but there should be a primary objective.
“Anytime you get a diffuse set of objectives, you get a diffuse set of results,'' he said.
North Dakota's Dalrymple said there is a misperception that upstream states don't care about flood control. He said the stretch of river below Bismarck and Mandan, N.D., benefits greatly from Garrison Dam.
“We are in the business of storing water,'' he said.
Dalrymple said he favored lowering Garrison Lake in the fall to a point where it would have plenty of storage for spring runoff.
South Dakota's Daugaard said that corps officers readily agreed that an independent, external review should be made of the flood and the corps' actions.
Iowa's Reynolds said flooded communities and individuals demand accountability and the assurance that a similar flood won't happen again.
She said a public meeting will be held Sept. 9 in Council Bluffs to talk about the next steps in the flood fight and recovery.
Brig. Gen. John McMahon, commander of the Northwestern Division in Portland, was the top corps official at the meeting.
McMahon said afterward that flood control is the corps' top priority.
“Could we have more flood control by virtue of creating more space in the reservoir system?'' he said. “There are trade-offs.''
McMahon said greater flood control can be achieved by thinking differently about the floodplain and how it's managed with zoning laws and setback levees.
“There's more than one way to skin this cat,'' he said, and “we've got to think broadly and keep working together.''
Flooding began in May, when the corps announced drastically increased releases from its dams to flush reservoirs swollen with water from record rains in the Northern Plains. The river is expected to remain out of its banks at Omaha until at least mid-September.
The governors plan to meet again in November.
Dalrymple said the flood taught Americans that the Missouri can overwhelm the world's finest flood-control system — with big dams managed by professional engineers — and cause billions of dollars of damage.
“That's something we did not think could happen,'' he said. “All the thinking about how you manage the river from now on is going to be changed.''
World-Herald staff writer Nancy Gaarder contributed to this report.
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