WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would be required to keep water levels in upstream reservoirs low enough to accommodate the kind of record-high runoff that caused this year's Missouri River flooding under a bill written by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa.
The corps typically maintains at least 16.3 million acre feet of storage in the six reservoirs — an amount based on the previous high runoff during an 1881 flood. That amount of storage was overwhelmed by this year's snowmelt runoff and spring rains, however.
King plans to introduce his bill Thursday. The legislation would require the corps to have enough storage on March 1 — the start of the runoff season — to accommodate the highest runoff ever experienced. Thus if the runoff kept increasing every year, so would the required amount of storage.
Water levels have led to disputes in the past involving boaters, farmers and environmentalists, all of whom have their own agendas for the river tied to recreation, irrigation and wildlife needs.
Although corps officials say flood control is the top priority for the reservoir system, it's not the only one.
In fact, the system has seven other authorized purposes: navigation, hydropower, irrigation, recreation, water supply, water quality and fish and wildlife, including endangered species.
They say providing enough empty space in the reservoirs to accommodate a flood of 2011's magnitude would mean less water for the other authorized purposes. The other purposes have their own dedicated constituencies. Boaters and fisherman want to use the water for recreation, farmers want it for their crops and environmental groups want to protect the wildlife.
But King said many of the disputes seem to have faded in the wake of the flooding. After all, some of those who rely on the water levels for recreation are the same people who lost homes in the flooding, he said.
He also dismissed concerns by environmental groups, saying they have been trying to micromanage the river for years through the courts. He said by enshrining water levels in the law, Congress can finally end that kind of wrangling.
He said the fundamental purpose of the dams has been and should be to guard against flooding.
"If this isn't a prudent approach, then I don't know how you justify the existence of the dams at all," King said.
King said his own rough estimates indicate the law would mean water levels in the Lewis and Clark Reservoir, behind Gavins Point Dam near Yankton, S.D., would need to be about a foot to a 1½ feet lower on March 1, and the larger reservoirs would need to be 3 to 4 feet lower.
He said that theoretically there's enough room in the reservoirs to drain them down to a point where all of this year's runoff could have been captured and not released downstream.
The prospects for the legislation are unclear, but it already has bipartisan support from all of the Iowa House members and most of Nebraska's.
King said initial co-sponsors include Nebraska Reps. Jeff Fortenberry and Lee Terry, both Republicans. On the Iowa side of the river, Reps. Bruce Braley, Dave Loebsack and Leonard Boswell, all Democrats, have signed on, and so has Rep. Tom Latham, a Republican.
King's legislation was a chief topic of discussion at a Wednesday meeting of the House Missouri River Flood Working Group, which was formed by Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., to investigate the causes of this summer's floods and attempt to prevent recurrences.
World-Herald staff writer David Hendee contributed to this report.
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