During the flood of 2011, I was deep in the Missouri River interviewing local farmers. It was a dry year for Missouri, and the floodwaters were spilling out of the upriver dams. According to the locals, the Corps’ mismanagement was at fault. That mismanagement took on the name “endangered species.” The Corps and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service being allegedly responsible for the endangerment of species in the area and flooding out local farmers was then, and is now, a false narrative.

River Advocate Jim Karpowicz examining a flooded church in Corning, Missouri during the Flood of 2011.

The Corps’ management of endangered species was minimal. The purported spring rises, designed to mimic the river’s natural flows, rarely happened. The notching of wing dikes was always an effort to clear sediment; it had nothing to do with pallid sturgeon. The shallow water habitat created by the Corps did not add an inch to the flood crests; it lowered flood crests by giving the river room to roam. Although the asserted management of endangered species was false, the emotional resonance of local farmers gained strength.

A bill was introduced to remove Fish and Wildlife from the congressionally authorized purposes on the Missouri River. In a disastrous court ruling, a judge decided in favor of some of the flood-damaged farms, opening the door to millions of dollars in damages. Following a decade of continuous flooding, the governor created the Flood Recovery Advisory Working Group (FRAWG) in 2019 to consider solutions to the problem. Seats at the table represented agriculture interests, transportation, levee districts, and the barge industry, deliberately excluding environmental groups that could offer new and innovative nature-based solutions to flood control.

The truth is, the flooding on the Missouri River was not caused by the Corp’s mismanagement or by endangered species. It was caused by rain, lots of it pouring into a system that was not designed to hold it.

Despite the propaganda of environmental interests verses agriculture, river-adjacent farmers could see after many unprofitable years of battling floodwaters that something else was going on. There was a lot of talk about building resilience to severe weather events. Locals were not looking for conflict or scapegoats; they were taking the initiative in problem solving.

Last April, at one of the governor’s FRAWG meetings, the Atchison County Levee District #1 surprised everyone with an innovative proposal. They wanted to set back two federal levees, giving 1,040 acres back to the floodplain to protect important infrastructure, reduce flood crests, and to add important wildlife habitat. The proposal was expensive, but it was an innovative and visionary approach to the problem that was championed by local farmers. Their partners were The Nature Conservancy and the Missouri Department of Conservation, rather than the traditional agriculture commodity groups. Showing that environmental interests and agriculture working together could solve complex problems.

In their 2020 virtual annual meeting, the Conservation Federation of Missouri passed a resolution to support this approach to flood control. It was the first resolution passed by the organization on recovering the Missouri River.

All of us working together can develop new solutions to old problems — nature and agriculture can coexist and thrive.