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Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst testifies about flooding at U.S. Senate hearing

Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst testifies about flooding at U.S. Senate hearing

April 18th, 2019 by Bob Watson in Missouri News

This Tuesday, March 19, 2019 aerial photo shows flooding along the Missouri River in Pacific Junction, Iowa. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says rivers breached at least a dozen levees in Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri. Hundreds of homes are damaged, and tens of thousands of acres are inundated with water.

Photo by DroneBase via AP

With flooding already an expensive problem in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska, the U.S. Senate's Committee on Environment and Public Works staged a hearing about flood issues in Glenwood, Iowa, a Missouri River community southeast of Omaha, Nebraska.

Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst told the News Tribune on Wednesday that four senators attended the hearing — Iowa Republicans Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst; Jerry Moran, R-Kansas; and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York.

The U.S. Senate's website says only Ernst and Gillibrand are committee members.

Gillibrand is also one of 19 Democrats who've announced plans to seek the Democratic Party's nomination for president in 2020.

Hurst, who raises corn and soybeans in Atchison County, testified at Wednesday's hearing.

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"I think it went well," he said in a telephone interview. "I was on a panel with three other people from flood-affected areas, and we basically all had the same message" — that Congress needs to make it clear that flood control must be the highest priority for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' management of the Missouri River basin.

Congress assigned that management authority to the Corps after devastating flooding in the 1940s, and gave the Corps eight priorities to follow in that management. The priorities included flood control, river navigation, hydroelectric power, irrigation, water supply, water quality, recreation, and fish and wildlife (including preservation of endangered species).

"The first person to speak was mayor of the little town of Hamburg (Iowa), which got flooded this time — for the first time since 1951 and '52, and those historic floods back then," Hurst told the News Tribune. "Her story was pretty moving."

Hamburg's story includes raising levees that, this year, were still topped, flooding the Southwest Iowa town in minutes.

Hurst said Moran, Grassley and Ernst are all familiar with constituents' complaints about Missouri River Valley flooding, and they "get flood control versus the other purposes."

On the other hand, he said: "I have a feeling it was Sen. Gillibrand's first exposure to this issue, in quite this way, so she was listening.

"I thought she was fully engaged in the hearing."

Hurst acknowledged some people favor less management of the Missouri River, and would allow it to spread out more over the valley, in the same manner it flowed before the dam-building projects of the 1940s an '50s.

However, Hurst explained: "We've already made the decision to live in that bottom land, to farm in that bottom and, for this argument — almost more importantly — to connect the United States together in that bottom."

Because of the current flooding, Hurst can't get from his Northwest Missouri farm to nearby Nebraska, since "all the approaches to the bridges are flooded out. I can't get my fertilizer to my farm, because it comes across that bridge (and) across that road.

"I can't ship grain away from my farm, because the railroad that my grain goes on, that takes it south to the feedlots of Texas or Mexico, is closed."

And, had the river flooding been just 6 inches higher this spring, Hurst said, the Cooper Nuclear Power Station would have had to shut down, "and a lot of Nebraska would have had to scramble for electricity."

So, with the decision already made to farm and live in river bottom lands, Hurst said, "The only argument now is how best to protect the people and the businesses and the infrastructure that is there."

Gov. Mike Parson didn't attend the hearing, but submitted testimony.

In that testimony, the governor asked Congress to help expedite the delivery of federal aid for flood recovery.

And he urged federal agencies to refocus the conversation away from fish and wildlife issues to the more pressing matter of flood control.

"The discussion we need to be having is how can the states of the Missouri River Basin work with Congress and the federal agencies to improve flood control and flood protection," Parson wrote, "on a Missouri River system that has once again proven to be inadequate to protect our citizens.

"If we are to ensure that the system is managed in a way that reflects the priorities of basin citizens, it is imperative that the states of the Missouri River basin have direct input and that our recommendations are given due consideration."

Although he isn't a committee member, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt was asked about the situation Wednesday morning, after giving a speech to the Missouri House of Representatives.

"I think we've got a moment here when can look at the priorities of the river," Blunt told reporters, "and when you focus the priorities of the river, you have some impact on other things, as well.

"You know, the Mississippi River is managed totally different from the Missouri."

Blunt said the Mississippi management "understand(s) that flood control is a priority, that the Mississippi — as an avenue of commerce — is a priority, and I think we need to have that same decision, in a more meaningful way, about the Missouri."

Blunt and Hurst think the Missouri should have a 9-foot-deep channel, which would allow more water to flow down the river and provide a better draft for barges.