By any measure, the Flood of 2011 was one for the record books. Which makes legislation sponsored by U.S. Rep. Steve King of Iowa a logical place to start as federal and state officials look for ways to keep such a devastating flood from happening again.
King's bill, with 10 Republican and Democratic co-sponsors from Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri and South Dakota, would increase the amount of storage space for flood control in six Missouri River reservoirs.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers typically has based that storage space on the previous worst flooding on record, in 1881. That record fell this year when a new "worst case" scenario unfolded.
As reporting by The World-Herald's David Hendee found, rains that fell on Montana, Wyoming and the western Dakotas in May were as heavy and spread over a larger area than those delivered by Hurricane Irene on the East Coast. All that water, combined with extra snowmelt, had no place to go but down the Missouri.
Under King's bill, the Corps of Engineers would be required to have enough storage to accommodate the highest runoff ever experienced. If the bill becomes law, the 2011 level would be the new benchmark. The bill also says reservoirs should be adjusted each year to avoid contributing to serious downstream flooding.
Corps of Engineers officials say flood control is the top priority for the reservoirs. But the system has seven more authorized purposes: navigation, hydropower, irrigation, recreation, water supply, water quality and fish and wildlife management. Juggling those sometimes conflicting priorities has been at the center of disputes before, and a rift remains.
Most Missouri River state governors met in Omaha on Monday, and Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman said their top priority is flood control. But Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who did not attend, argued that too much emphasis on flood control downstream would lead, when a drought hits, to empty reservoirs that his state needs for recreation, wildlife and agriculture.
The damage done by 100-plus days of flooding is staggering. Hundreds were forced from their homes. Repairing levees, dams and other flood control systems could cost $500 million to $1 billion. Crop losses are in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Highways and other infrastructure remain in need of repairs.
Balancing the differing Missouri River interests is difficult. Accurately predicting future weather extremes is impossible. King's bill may go too far or not far enough. But the Iowa congressman is right to say that after this year's new high-water mark, it's time to take another look.