Topeka Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback questioned Wednesday whether controlling floods is a high enough priority for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers overseeing the Missouri River system and called for the creation of a special commission to examine its role.
Brownback said the commission should be similar to one that examined the nation's intelligence-gathering system following the Sept. 11, 2011, terror attacks. Brownback's comments during a Statehouse news conference were prompted by concerns among downstream states about the ongoing potential for flooding.
The governor said his state will "run a high-wire act" every time significant rain falls in the lower Missouri River basin below the Gavin's Point dam in South Dakota. That's the lowest of six dams along the river from which water is released.
"Every major rainfall event could cause flooding," Brownback told reporters. "It could be as dry as a bone in a lot of places, and you'll see flooding along the Missouri River because of how the system is."
The Corps of Engineers didn't immediately respond to Brownback's comments. The Corps has blamed unusually heavy rainfall in the upper river basin and higher than normal snowmelt for the need to release historic amounts of water to relieve bloated reservoirs.
The biggest threat for flooding in Kansas is in Doniphan, Atchison and Leavenworth counties. The state is particularly concerned about Elwood, a town of about 1,100 across the river from St. Joseph, Mo., that is surrounded on three sides by the river, and Wathena, a town of about 1,300 people a few miles to the west. Part of Kansas Highway 7 from the Nebraska border has been closed by flooding since the end of May.
Maj. Gen. Lee Tafanelli, the state's adjutant general and its top emergency management official, said concerns about flooding could linger into December.
"The levee system, while it is still holding very well, it is becoming very saturated, and additional rainfalls that we're projected to receive over the next several days throughout the river basin will continue to complicate the situation," Tafanelli said.
Brownback said he's concerned that the Corps is required by federal law to put too much weight on other issues in managing the Missouri River system, such as preserving navigation downstream or recreation on the reservoirs.
"Now we're looking at a situation, possibly, where those others have cost and caused a great deal of flooding. That is not known yet," Brownback said. "We need a 9-11 style commission to look back on how the system was operated this past winter and ask, 'Are we operating it effectively for everybody downstream?'"