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President signs 'emergency' declaration; senators form working group on Missouri River

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 30, 2011 - WASHINGTON - As the surge of high water on the Missouri River continued inexorably on its way toward St. Louis, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators -- including Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. -- formed a working group Thursday to address river and flood issues.

A few hours later, Blunt and McCaskill sent a letter to President Barack Obama to support Gov. Jay Nixon's request for an emergency disaster declaration for 27 Missouri counties and St. Louis "in the wake of, and in anticipation of, additional severe flooding in areas along the Missouri River." While the river is expected to crest at a high level, authorities hope that severe flooding will not occur in the St. Louis region.

Noting that the Missouri River flooding has resulted from the melting of record snow packs in the Northwest that has strained the six huge reservoirs that normally can control water discharges, the senators wrote that the unusual water releases has caused "the destruction of homes, farms and businesses all along the Missouri River. The state and local communities have been and continue to be burdened by unprecedented costs" related to the flooding, which so far has mainly hit northwest Missouri.

The senators continued: "Missouri has suffered several other natural disasters of large magnitude in the past year. That coupled with the scale of the current Missouri River flooding has led the governor to determine that an effective response to these events is beyond the capabilities of the state and local governments."

The president signed such a declaration later the same day. Covered under emergency provisions are the counties of Andrew, Atchison, Boone, Buchanan, Callaway, Carroll, Chariton, Clark, Clay, Cole, Cooper, Franklin, Gasconade, Holt, Howard, Jackson, Lafayette, Lewis, Moniteau, Montgomery, Osage, Platte, Ray, Saline, St. Charles, St. Louis, and Warren and the city of St. Louis.


Meanwhile, the new Senate "Missouri River Working Group" -- which so far also includes Sens. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Kent Conrad, D-N.D. -- announced plans to meet during the week of July 11 "to address issues related to flood control, examine the best ways to protect people and property and seek solutions to avoid similar flooding in the years to come."

In a letter sent to their Senate colleagues today, members of the group wrote that the flooding "has created huge challenges for the communities along the river." Noting that the snowmelt and record rainfall have "placed enormous stress on the Missouri's great reservoirs," they said the Army Corps of Engineers "has been forced to release record levels of water down the river resulting in heavy flooding. It is expected to continue this release at such levels for the next several weeks."

Both Blunt and McCaskill have said they support revisiting the Army Corps of Engineers' master plan for the Missouri River. Put in place in 2004 in part to protect river wildlife, that plan requires the Corps to keep water in upriver reservoirs through most of winter, leading to high water in the lower river during the spring. This year, the annual spring flood has become a far greater problem.

In their letter to other senators, Blunt, McCaskill and other members of the working group wrote that they planned to "assess the factors that led to this year's floods, evaluate ideas for improving flood control along the Missouri River and collaborate on efforts to prioritize flood control measures in the future.

"Improving flood control will require cooperation from one end of the Missouri River to the other," they wrote.

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.