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The Missouri River has seen devastating floods in the past decade. A federal judge recently ruled that the Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for what could be hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage because of its flood control policy. As Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters reports, that has intensified debate over managing the river that runs from Montana to Missouri.
CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: I'm standing on the border of Omaha, Neb., and Council Bluffs, Iowa, which means I'm on a pedestrian bridge over the Missouri River. It's cold out - cloudy. Nobody's really out except for a few joggers. A sign stands out. It says a river forever changed by the power of humans flows beneath this bridge.
MARIAN MAAS: Well, the Missouri River is the longest river in the United States. And it is also the most highly modified.
MASTERS: That's Marian Maas with the Nebraska Wildlife Federation. Decades ago, directed by Congress, the Army Corps constructed a system of dams and reservoirs to accommodate more barge traffic and allow people to develop land in the natural flood plain. But it also destroyed habitat for some wildlife. Maas says turning that land back into flood plain would reduce the potential for flood damage.
MAAS: There is great holding capacity in backwaters and wetlands and a river that can move some - can move in its flood plain.
MASTERS: But there are a lot of people who live and farm there who don't want to lose their land. They say the Army Corps needs to change how it handles flooding on the river, known as the Big Muddy, and that things got worse in 2004. That's when the Army Corps changed how it managed the river - making habitat for endangered species, specifically two birds and fish, more of a priority than flood control. Leo Ettleman is a sixth-generation farmer near the southwest Iowa town of Sidney.
LEO ETTLEMAN: Flood control was no longer the dominant function of the management of the river. The flood control constraints got changed. And we saw immediate negative impacts.
MASTERS: So Ettleman and hundreds of other farmers and business owners along the river sued the Army Corps of Engineers, alleging its actions contributed to five floods along the river since 2007. The Corps had notched dikes and reopened historic chutes to allow more water to flow and restore habitat. But the judge ruled this allowed the river to meander and erode the bank, which contributed to devastating floods. U.S. Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa was a member of the National Guard and assisted with recovery efforts during the massive flood of 2011.
JONI ERNST: I am very encouraged by this ruling. And I do hope that the Army Corps of Engineers uses this as an opportunity to go back, review and then correct the problematic policies that they've had in the past.
MASTERS: Senator Ernst says she'll be watching how the Army Corps reacts. And if flood protection is not prioritized, congressional action might be necessary. A spokesman for the Corps says because the litigation is not over, he can't comment. But it will continue to enforce the laws of the land. Brad Walker says the judge's decision was misguided. He's a recently retired environmental and engineering expert and says the work that was being done to restore the natural flood plain would have helped flood control and says landowners are partly to blame.
BRAD WALKER: And there would have been significantly less damage if there had been places for the water to go.
MASTERS: So I asked farmer Leo Ettleman how should the Army Corps manage the river without using the flood plain he and his fellow plaintiffs inhabit.
ETTLEMAN: That is, at this point, the $300-million question because I have no idea. It's a tough call. It truly is.
MASTERS: For now, the judge is determining the exact monetary damages from floods that have become common along this river forever changed by the power of humans. For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters.
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