By Des Moines Register
What a difference a year makes. In the spring and summer of 2011, Midwest governors accused the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of negligently causing flooding along the Missouri River by releasing too much water from reservoirs in the Dakotas and Montana. Now the corps is being beseeched to increase flows on the Missouri to aid shipping on the Mississippi River.
The problem a year ago was caused by a record winter snowfall in the Rockies and freak rainstorms that spring. The problem this year is severe drought.
About the only thing keeping the lower Mississippi River open to barge traffic is the Missouri River, which is contributing 60 to 80 percent of the water south of the confluence of the two rivers at St. Louis. But the Corps of Engineers is scheduled to begin releasing less water from six dams on the Missouri to increase water stored for irrigation and recreation next spring and summer.
Midwestern governors and members of Congress, including Iowa’s senators Tom Harkin and Chuck Grassley and four Iowa members of the U.S. House, have called on the Corps of Engineers to maintain the current release rates on the Missouri. The alternative is to shut down barge traffic until next March on the lower Mississippi.
A temporary delay in reducing Missouri flows seems reasonable. The Obama administration should authorize the temporary delay.
A failure to act could have serious economic consequences. According to the barge industry, 60 percent of the nation’s grain exports move by barge on inland waterways and eventually the Mississippi.
Ultimately, Congress may have to give the Corps of Engineers more flexibility to respond to rapidly shifting climate realities rather than forcing political leaders to plead for relief every time the river unexpectedly floods or dries up.