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Farmers’ Levees Concerns Linger

July 5, 1998

WAVERLY, Mo. (AP) _ Cold clumps of mud squish beneath the soles of Don Arth’s work boots on another soggy day along the Missouri River. Off-and-on drizzle softens his 2,000 or so acres and ensures no crop work will get done this day.

The river’s up a bit, he says, but not to worry. It’s nothing like 1993, when the Missouri broke through the overmatched levee lining the north edge of Arth’s farm about 60 miles east of Kansas City. His crops were swamped, his home soaked through.

Five years later, Arth and other farmers see little end to the financial and political effects on floodplain farming caused by the ’93 disaster, which wreaked watery havoc in nine states over that entire summer.

``Kind of seems like, in a way, the flood never left,″ said Arth, 59. ``The water’s gone, but it seems like we fight it from time to time, one way or the other.″

Farmers worry about the rising costs of levee repair, especially since many of them are still paying repair bills from the 1993 flood and others since. They fear that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the government agent most responsible for flood protection, is growing disinterested in fixing levees that only burst again after heavy rains.

Growers also fret over environmentalists’ perceived influence on the Clinton administration’s flood policy, which farmers say favors wildlife habitat over crops in the floodplain.

The environmentalists’ ``goal is to make it as difficult as they can to rebuild (the levees) and these levee districts won’t be able to afford it,″ asserted Carl Lensing, who plants corn, wheat and soybeans in eastern Missouri. ``The eventual goal is to get out of levee construction completely.″


The corps first stiffened its levee rules after a 1986 flood overpowered many barriers, displacing thousands of people and causing $100 million in damage.

The corps promised to pay 80 percent of flood repairs for nonfederal levees _ built by private landowners but inspected and certified by the corps _ if they kept up their maintenance. But no money would go to those that didn’t or to districts that routinely maintained their levees but skipped regular corps inspections.

At least 48 of the 155 eligible private levees in the corps’ region along the Missouri from Rulo, Neb., to St. Louis were rejected for levee repair help after the 1993 flood.

But even levees that qualified for repair had to weather new bureaucratic scrutiny after 1993. A new multi-agency review team first had to gauge what made more sense _ repair the levee or opt for alternatives such as land buyouts or altering roads and rail lines to rise above flood plains.

Even if repairs were approved, strict new rules dictated where and how a levee could be patched. As a result, many levees were realigned rather than returned to their original state.

Farmers objected, and their complaints caught the attention of Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo.

``They have done every trick in the book administratively to frustrate, delay and hinder the maintenance of flood control,″ Bond said last month. ``If there were three or four holes (in the levee), you had to get seven different agencies to sign off on it.″

Marjorie DeBrot, the corps’ emergency management director in Kansas City, defended the decisions: ``Rebuilding to the way it was is expensive, and the corps’ objective is to make the system less costly.″


Levees, especially the huge mounds that guard against 500-year floods, also have come under fire for contributing to environmental ills. The big levees pen in the Missouri, preventing it from spreading out naturally into wetlands that support a rich array of wildlife.

Environmentalists favor leaving damaged levees unrepaired and buying out flood-prone land, which they say would reduce the acreage that would need government help after a big flood.

``When the floods flow over the levees, they bring in rich loads of nutrients that feed the soil and create a habitat,″ said Ken Midkiff, director of the Sierra Club of Missouri. ``It’s about wetlands preservation, and it’s the aspect of just letting the river, every now and then, go out of its banks as it wants to do.″

Farmers, understandably, object to such heresy. They demand the protection of sound levees and say restrictions on riverside farms would help wildlife only marginally and would cut into crop production.

``It’s a bad thing for the community because it destroys tax base, which pays for schools and roads,″ said Lensing, the soybean farmer.


The corps denies bowing to environmentalist pressure but acknowledges it wants landowners to become less dependent on 500-year levees.

The big levees narrow rivers’ natural flow and raise levels upstream, even without flooding. In eastern Missouri, some spots in the Missouri River have averaged up to 6 feet higher than they did two decades earlier.

``It’s fiscally irresponsible and stupid to build these huge levees because they cause more problems than they prevent,″ Midkiff said. ``In 1993 they caused more flooding by forcing the river to take a different path than it would have taken otherwise.″

Midkiff predicts a time when riverside farmers will have to justify taxpayers’ subsidy of all levees, not just massive ones.

``The farmers have chosen to locate in the floodplain, and when you locate in the floodplain, you can expect flooding,″ he said. ``This country has spent billions and billions of dollars to protect a private interest, and now the corps is merely shifting some of the burden to the people who are going to benefit from that protection.″

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