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Senators seek GAO inquiry into Missouri River flood management

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 8, 2011 - WASHINGTON - After being pummeled by lawmakers at U.S. House and Senate hearings, the Army Corps of Engineers now faces an inquiry by a federal watchdog agency into how it managed the Missouri River during this year's record floods.

This week, 13 senators representing states along the Big Muddy's basin asked the Government Accountability Office to gather information on 28 pointed questions about the Corps' preparation for and response to the flooding, which caused billions of dollars in damages along the river.

The members of the bipartisan Missouri River Working Group also asked the GAO to develop its own recommendation "for improving flood control operations along the Missouri River system that would be both timely and effective in mitigating future flood risks."

They asked the GAO to determine whether the Corps properly managed releases from the six giant main-stem reservoirs that act like giant spigots to partially control Missouri River flows. They also asked how well the Corps used weather forecasts in planning, whether the Corps fully followed the river's Master Manual and whether - as its officials have testified at hearings - the Corps factored concerns about endangered species and other environmental issues into its river management during the flooding.

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., described the letter as "a strong statement by senators in the seven states along river that we want the Corps' performance and plans to meet what the priorities are. The Number One priority is supposed to be flood control. Let's see what the Corps plans to do" to accomplish that.

Blunt, who helped organize the working group along with Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., told reporters Thursday that the disparate group of Republican and Democratic senators "shows a bipartisan and broad-based view of this [river management] issue that we've never had before" - with every senator wanting to avoid a repeat of this year's flood.

Also on Thursday, Blunt and McCaskill joined other members of the Senate working group in sending a letter to the commander of the Northwest Division, Brig. Gen. John M. McMahon, urging the Corps to try to maximize the amount of water the reservoirs can hold by March 1 and to prepare for possible heavy rains and snowfall.

In the letter, the senators said the flooding "leaves many damaged levees and other infrastructure along the river that will not be repaired or only partially repaired in time for possible high water flows next year. Many thousands of acres of farmland that also impacts communities will likely only have 25 year flood protection at best."

They said that the Corps "should not only consider historical patterns and weather predictions for snow pack and rain, but also the weakened level of flood protection many of our constituents face," the senators continued. The Senate working group includes lawmakers from Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana.

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

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