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Water War Continues In Iowa After Flooding Recedes


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish. A full year after Missouri River flood waters ravaged homes, businesses and farms in the Great Plains, the cleanup goes on - as does the battle over how to prepare for future floods. Some want the Missouri controlled for navigation. That means more water held back upriver. But others, looking to protect endangered species, want the river to flow more freely.

Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters has the story.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Sioux City sits along the Missouri River in northwest Iowa. The channel is straightened and controlled up here, to keep barges moving along the river down south. Jim Redmond is with the Northwest Iowa Sierra Club, and thinks the Missouri River is just too industrialized.

JIM REDMOND: The water that fell up in North Dakota and Montana and South Dakota, that's something that the river can handle - but not when you create all these handicaps in the channel, and cut the channel off from the floodplain.

BRIAN JOHNSON: You know, and we fared better than a lot of people. A lot of people's - houses are destroyed. This house isn't destroyed, but we've completely - this was all covered with mold. We've stripped it out.

MASTERS: Brian Johnson farms near Percival, Iowa, in the very southwestern corner of the state. He lost 95 percent of the 1,500 acres he farms. Out here, there are piles of river bottom sand and silt, some stacked 20 feet high. Dry green leaves of corn and soybeans are sprouting in rows of what looks like beach sand.

JOHNSON: There has not been an economic impact study done on what the flood - what happened to the flood - with the flood last year. And we think those numbers are in the billions of dollars.

MASTERS: Johnson says the impact goes beyond farmers. Numerous businesses were hit just as hard when the Missouri flooded. Some have joined to form a group called Responsible River Management, seeking a bigger voice in how the Missouri is managed. Johnson's group wants more water stored in reservoirs up north. But that kind of control is up to the Army Corps of Engineers, which manages all the dams and levies along the river. And the Corps takes its orders from Congress.

Johnson's group argues that too many management decisions are based on three endangered species dependent on the river: two birds - the least tern and piping plover - and a fish - the pallid sturgeon. The Sierra Club's Jim Redmond says the sturgeon are amazing.

REDMOND: This is like a 6-foot fish that lives to a hundred years old. It's a magnificent species. People don't pay attention to it because it's rare, for one thing. They haven't seen one.

BILL SMITH: It's too easy to grab onto something like that and say, we're spending 60 million, 70 million on this - you know, for the pallid sturgeon, piping plover and the least tern? Are you kidding me? My house is somewhere in St. Louis right now.

MASTERS: That's Bill Smith, president of the Missouri Valley Water Fowlers Association. He's also a subcontractor, and has repaired dozens of flooded homes in northwest Iowa. But there are still more parties fighting on this river.

David Sieck farms along the river, and serves as vice chair of the Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee - a group representing local, state, tribal and federal interests here.

DAVID SIECK: This law has caused some ripples in our texture again, you know, in our fight to save the species. Cooler heads need to prevail. We need to think this through. That being said, a lot of groups, when their voices aren't perceived to have been heard or listened to, they go back home and rally their troops, and do what they have to do to protect their interests.

If the people of the basin can't agree how to fix the problems with the species and then we go back to the way we used to do it - which is, the courts decide - and then, it's not good for anybody.

MASTERS: And the fight continues with the push and pull over river channels, water levels, and how best to prevent another bad flood on a river that flows through seven states.

For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Clay Masters is a reporter for Iowa Public Radio and formerly for Harvest Public Media. His stories have appeared on NPR

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