OMAHA, Neb. – The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Monday it will change its approach to managing the Missouri River following a summer of record flooding that damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes, led to millions of dollars in road repairs and forced communities to scramble to build temporary levees.
The corps said it will make the changes in the coming months, including getting as much water out of the river basin's reservoir system as possible before spring and aggressively releasing more water in the spring, if needed.
The corps also is looking at how much more reservoir space might be needed to ease flooding.
The changes come in response to concerns voiced by residents — many of whom lost crops or were forced out of their homes for weeks by the flooding — during eight public meetings recently held in Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas, Montana and North Dakota.
"The past two weeks have been incredibly beneficial, and we have listened intently to the people we serve," Brig. Gen. John McMahon, the commander of the corps' northwestern division, said in a written release. "The top priority of the Northwestern Division Missouri is to responsibly prepare for the 2012 runoff season."
The public meetings often turned contentious, with corps officials facing angry residents who blamed them for not doing more to allay the flooding.
Corps officials said they had the reservoirs at desired levels last spring, but a late buildup of snow in the Rocky Mountains and unexpectedly heavy rains in Montana and other upstream areas in May led to record runoff. That prompted to the corps to release massive amounts of water from dams along the river, resulting in massive flooding downstream.
While the corps made clear that it was making the changes to address Missouri River basin residents' concerns, its leaders did not give any indication they were rethinking the handling of the river's management before the flooding. A corps spokeswoman did not immediately return messages seeking comment Monday.
The Monday announcement was met with relief from people in the states most affected by the flooding.
Rhonda Wiley, a county emergency management coordinator based in Rock Port, Mo., said the corps' announcement "made my Monday morning."
"It seems to me they have actually listened to what was brought out at their meetings," Wiley said. "It's the first step of many steps yet to come."
She said recovery from flooding in her county is moving slowly and she's worried after reading predictions of higher-than-average precipitation in the northern part of the Missouri River basin in the coming winter and spring.
"I just hope now the corps can find the money to get in here and get these levees built back up," she said. "What we're looking at now, we could be doing this all over again next year."
The corps has estimated it will cost more than $2 billion to repair the damage to the nation's levees, dams and riverbanks caused by this year's flooding.
Kelli Shaner of rural Fort Calhoun, just north of Omaha, said she's glad the corps is rethinking management of the river. She and her husband lost 80 percent of their corn and soybeans to flooding this summer and have only been able to return to their home, which was significantly damaged, in the past two weeks.
But she doesn't blame the corps for the damage, saying she was well aware of the potential for flooding on the land that has been in her husband's family for five generations.
"Bottom line is, I'm very glad they're changing and looking at the way they're doing things, because it can only get better," Shaner said. "Hopefully, this devastation won't happen to other people who live along the river bottom."
Governors in flooded states welcomed the corps' news. Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman said the governors told the corps flood control must be its highest priority and the agency "may be starting to listen to the citizens affected by this year's historic and devastating flooding."
South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard lauded a segment of the corps' plan calling for better communications with bi-monthly conference calls looping in federal, state, county and local officials. Daugaard said the corps waited too long last year to tell people that conditions in February, March and April indicated there would be a heavy spring runoff.
"While it didn't cause the flood, it certainly aggravated it," he said.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad addressed the issue at his weekly news conference Monday, saying a change in the way the corps manages the river was needed.
The duration of the flood "was certainly determined by the amount of water that was released from the dams upstream on the Missouri River," Branstad said. "We intend to work with the other governors in having a strong voice for our constituents in changing the way the river is managed."
But the corps' plan is likely to rankle Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who has said lowering reservoir levels now could lead to problems when drought hits. He told downstream Missouri River states last month that he would support a new management plan only if his state's reservoirs weren't included.
Schweitzer was out of the country Monday and unavailable for comment on the plan.
Associated Press writers William Draper in Kansas City, Mo., Mike Glover in Des Moines, Iowa, and Chet Brokaw in Pierre, S.D., contributed to this report.
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