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Why Didn’t the Levee Protect the Town of Hamburg, Iowa?

When the March Missouri River floodwaters breached the levee at Hamburg, Iowa, no one was surprised. This is not the first time Hamburg has been engulfed in water.

The most recent major flood was 2011. That wasn’t the first flood, but it was the beginning of the most recent chapter in the levee controversy.

For most of recent memory, the town of 1,100 located between the Missouri and Nishnabotna rivers in Iowa’s far southwest corner, has been protected by an 18-foot levee. But the floods of 2011 were extreme.

“What many people don’t realize,” says Ted Streckfuss, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Omaha District deputy district engineer, “is that the Missouri River basin is a runoff driven system. Any water that falls in any given year must be evacuated in that year. In an average year, that is around 23 million acre feet of water. In 2011, it was 60 million acre feet, or nearly three times the average amount of water.” Streckfuss estimates 2019 will see 40 to 45 million acre feet.

To hold back the raging river, townspeople, local officials, and the Army Corp of Engineers worked feverishly through the pouring rains in 2011 to build the mud into a levee extension, gaining an additional 8 to 9 feet, enough to spare the town from the worst of the deluge.

The euphoria was short-lived. Once the crisis had passed, the town of Hamburg was told the temporary levee had to come down. It did not meet permanent specifications.

“We were out there building the structure while it was raining with little planning,” says Streckfuss. “It was not an engineered solution. It was intended to be only temporary. And the law is pretty specific on the required removal of temporary structures.”

To keep the levee’s new height, the town needed to follow what is known as the Section 408 process allowing two options – remove the temporary structure or raise the funds to build a new one. The cost to the city to remove the temporary levee extension was $1.3 million. The city’s portion of the cost of building a permanent levee was $5.6 million.

Using every tool in their belt, including a catchy YouTube video on the viral circuit, and $1 million from the State of Iowa, the funding remained elusive.

So the temporary levee came down, the town was flooded in the most recent storms, and the Army Corps of Engineers has been shouldered with the blame.

Should they be blamed?

Streckfuss says such things are not the Corps’ decision. “Our elected representatives define our responsibilities and priorities,” he says. “We do what Congress tells us to do.”

The Corps of Engineers follows the Missouri River Master Manual, which governs operation of the six dams on the Missouri River. The Master Manual was rewritten in 2004 following a years-long process. Updates were made in 2018, though they did little to address the flood control issues.

Pat Sheldon, chairman of the Benton-Washington Levee District and a farmer near Percival, Iowa, 15 miles upstream from Hamburg, says the changes in priorities in the 2004 version created much of the problem. The river used to be managed with flood control, navigation, and hydroelectric power in mind. Now, water supply, irrigation, recreation, and fish and wildlife protections have entered the mix.

Some are concerned that wildlife protections are too heavily prioritized in the flood management plan that aims to empty upstream reservoirs in the interest of saving a handful of protected fish and waterfowl species.

“We deal with many systems, with more than one purpose,” says Streckfuss, “as per Congress’ priorities.”

The result is the Missouri, once a sprawling, free-flowing, fast-moving body of water has been straightened and deepened. “Now, when we get extreme water situations, the water pushes over the banks instead of down the channel,” says Sheldon. “We’re controlled by floods, not doing flood control.”

That puts Congress in damage control mode. Repair estimates for the 2019 flooding in the Omaha and Kansas City Districts of Corps of Engineers is $8 to 10 billion. In addition, the National Association of Counties has identified nearly $100 billion worth of projects authorized under the Water Resources Development Act that have not yet received appropriations.

“Sometimes common sense should rule,” Sheldon says of the government’s focus on after-the-fact measures. He would like to see an infrastructure bill that focuses on flood control become a congressional priority. And he thinks the locals should be part of the process. “We have too many people who don’t live here making the decisions. Those of us who know where the water wants to go and what the river used to be are trying to be heard.”

Congressional leaders from Iowa and surrounding states have met with southwest Iowa residents and officials, promising a new look at the situation. Sheldon says U.S. Senator Joni Ernst in particular has been a sympathetic ear. A southwest Iowa native, Ernst was on the ground with the National Guard during the 2011 floods and knows first-hand what havoc the flood waters can wreak.

On April 24, U.S. Representative from Iowa’s 3rd District, Cindy Axne, told KMA Radio News she believes changes need to be made. “As we move forward, and put more resources into this,” said Axne, “are we moving forward in a way that will just put more people in harm down the road? It sounds like that’s the case. We’ve got to now jump on this, and make sure whatever they build in the future accurately reflects the water levels that we’re going to be seeing. Right now, that’s not really in their authority to make happen – and that’s what we need to fix.”

Those involved this time around say they have every reason to expect a bipartisan approach to the problem. “This isn’t about politics,” says Sheldon.

What Happens Now?

As of now, the Hamburg levee will be rebuilt at the old height, according to Streckfuss, unless someone tells the Corps otherwise. A $12 million contract has been let for initial work designed to allow for infrastructure repairs behind the levee and to provide protection during spring weather events. The permanent repairs are in the planning stage.

“The first step is to get the river back in its channel,” says Streckfuss.

Work has begun near Percival. Dredges are on site filling levee breaches. But Sheldon says it will likely take two to three years to repair all the damage, and that is just to the old specifications.

“We feel for the people who are dramatically affected by this,” says Streckfuss. “The Corps takes its responsibilities very seriously, and we want to return the area to operational status so people can begin the healing process.”

But those on the ground can’t help but wonder if all aspects are being considered, like a realistic assessment of climate change and the growing likelihood of more severe weather events. There were more than 50 levee breeches in the Corps of Engineers Omaha District this time around.

Sheldon says there has been talk of moving the levees back from the river to allow more room for water flow, but that takes even more land out of ag production and off the county tax rolls. “They already own 6,000 acres,” says Sheldon. “That’s a lot of property not helping to support roads and schools."

Congress, local officials and citizens, and the Governors of the affected states all appear to be working on the problem, but folks like Sheldon have seen that before.

As one citizen said during a recent meeting with elected representatives, “Short-term help is help, but what do we do about the management of those river systems? We can’t keep putting Band-Aids on the bigger problems.”

Sheldon agrees. “We need to take our river back,” he says, “or this will happen again.”

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