WASHINGTON — A Senate hearing Tuesday on the Missouri River flooding had lawmakers pondering a disturbing question — what if it happens again next year?
Chances may be slim — like 1-in-500 slim — that next year's snow runoff and rainfall would reach the same levels as 2011.
But it wouldn't take much of either to overwhelm an already-waterlogged system and flood-control structures damaged by this year's disaster, according to experts who appeared before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers faces funding challenges, and it's not clear when or how Congress will come up with more money for the river's managers.
Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, testified that the corps is assessing damaged flood structures and that repairs will begin soon on seven of the highest-priority levees.
She described how the corps has been making emergency fund transfers to cover the most necessary repairs.
U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., a member of the committee, later told The World-Herald that he's worried about the overwhelming needs facing the corps and the uncertain path for getting additional funding for the agency.
"They're doing everything they can, they're taking money from here and there and every other place trying to deal with the needs that are out there," Johanns said.
"But you kind of walk away from the hearing saying, my goodness, we've got to pay close attention to this to make sure the funding is in place to get the repair work done. I just think we're in kind of a dicey situation on a couple of fronts here."
As Tuesday's hearing wound down, Johanns pointed out that winter is right around the corner.
"The reality is, I'm a little bit worried that we're going to hit a drop-dead date here where, in the Midwest, there's no construction season left," Johanns said. "If we appropriate the money in December, it isn't going to help much because you can't do construction during the winter months."
He estimated Congress has a couple of weeks to get on top of the funding situation.
Several senators, including Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, spoke at the hearing about the need to place greater emphasis on flood control in the corps' master manual.
And Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., said he's concerned that the corps is refusing to adjust how much water the reservoirs can hold.
Brian Dunnigan, director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, testified that the state has tallied $155 million in public infrastructure damage from the flooding and that the number is certain to rise as the waters recede.
He said damaged flood-control structures aren't the only concern.
"The other worry is that the entire basin is wet from Montana down to St. Louis, so it won't take as much moisture, either in snowfall runoff or rainfall, to put water in the system," Dunnigan told The World-Herald.
Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Gen. John McMahon, commander of the corps' Northwest Division, said time is of the essence.
"I think we are vulnerable, and I think the clock is ticking," McMahon said. "And I think there's a realization that we're not going to be able to do everything. We're not going to be able to restore the system to its pre-2011 flood condition, but we've got to get on with as much as we can do."
McMahon said it's difficult to predict what will happen next spring with runoff.
"I don't want to candy-coat it ... prudent people should buy flood insurance and do things like that to mitigate the risk," he said.
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