NORTH SIOUX CITY – South Dakota’s U.S. Senator Mike Rounds didn’t pull any punches Thursday when addressing what he feels are the shortcomings of the Army Corps of Engineers’ failure to present a working plan to mitigate future flooding along the Missouri River Basin.

As chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Subcommittee on Waste, Superfund and Oversight Management Rounds conducted a field hearing in North Sioux City specifically addressing the oversight of the Army Corps’ management of the Missouri River and sought suggestions from a panel of experts on ways that the river’s management could be improved.

“The United States Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for managing the Missouri River to meet the needs of both the Corps and the surrounding communities,” he said in his opening statement. “In order for this to be successful, management of the river should always be done with extensive communication among stakeholders and a well-founded understanding of the needs of state and local governments, agriculture, recreation and economic interests – all of which depend on proper management of the Missouri River.”

At issue: The Corps’ management of the unprecedented flooding of the Missouri River.

“In 2011, record-setting rains, unusually moist soil conditions, and melting snow from a near-record setting snowfall in the Rocky Mountains and Northern Plains states combined to form a perfect storm that led to catastrophic flooding all along the Missouri River basin,” he said. “From May through August, extensive flooding caused major damage on residences, infrastructure, businesses and agriculture in the basin states of South Dakota, North Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, and Montana and Kansas. The flood caused more than $2 billion dollars in damages and resulted in 5 fatalities. 4,000 homes were flooded. Roads were destroyed, and agricultural land was ruined. Entire communities were under attack from the 2011 flood, largely left to fend for themselves.”

Rounds said that after the flood, the state’s residents were left with damaged city streets, sewage systems, storm sewers, parks and electrical systems, all which suffered unprecedented damage that cost millions of dollars to repair and took months – if not years – to complete.

“When the flood waters had receded and life began to return to normal the next step was to make sure that any and all measures were taken to make certain this never happens again,” he said.

A 2014 Government Accountability Office report concluded that improving existing hydrologic data and collecting new soil moisture, plains snowpack, and archeological flood and drought data could assist the Corps in making future release decision and in improving long-term forecasting models. Accordingly, a 2014 Water Resources Reform bill, commonly known as WRRDA, authorized the Army Corps to coordinate with various government agencies to create a soil moisture and snowpack monitoring network in the Upper Missouri River Basin.

Program Director for the Northwest Division of the Army Corps Of Engineers, David Ponganis, said he believes that the Corps have made strides in meeting the goals of the 2014 legislation, however to this date they are still putting a report together that will address the funding needed to move forward, a position that Rounds called “passing the buck.”

“I thought it was appropriate for me to step in and ask what progress (the Corps) have made,” Rounds said. “After the 2011 flood they indicated that one of the problems the Corps had was identifying the amount of water coming into the system. Congress responded and directed them, along with several other agencies, to do a study in which they could plan and better monitor the amount of moisture in the soil, the amount of rains in the spring, how deep the snowpack was above the dams and how much snowpack we had on the plains. Even though they have been operating this plan for more than 60 years, we said ‘Fine. If that is the case, put your plan together.’ Now we find out in 2016 that they have done nothing since then. They didn’t do anything the rest of 2014, 2015 and now they have the audacity to step in here today and say we haven’t done anything because Congress didn’t fund it.”

Rounds was visibly upset with the statement read by Ponganis and directed several questions to him following his statement of record.

“If Congress needs to fund it, why didn’t you put it in the President’s budget in 2014, 2015 or 2016?” he asked. “Furthermore if that is the case, how would you even know how much to ask Congress for if you haven’t done the study which Congress directed you to do in the first place? Why didn’t you ask for funding this time?”

Following the meeting Ponganis said he believes the Corps had made steps to improve management.

“There is already a lot being done in terms of monitoring and data collection,” Ponganis said. “We have improved upon that where we can in existing budget amounts. What the Senator was raising was one new proposal that actually came about because of the collaborative effort by the federal, state and local officials after 2011 to identify what additional things could be done. It was that money that the Senator was bringing up that he was surprised hadn’t been done. The authority for that just came in 2014. It takes a while to get through that and we are working as fast as we can to see how we can implement that provision of the law.”

Rounds however didn’t see it that way.

“They have failed time and time again,” he said. “They just haven’t done the job. They are just giving us excuses and the excuse will not stand up. So, what we will do is go back in and talk to the bosses involved and ask them why they have let this slip. We are going to look at the reports, which they say they have completed some of them right now. Then based on what we find, we are going see if there is a recommendation of something that can be done. If there is something we can do to provide the equipment, then we put that in a supplementary appropriations bill. We can do that. But we are not going to accept any more passing the buck and excuse making about why they haven’t done their job.”

The Senator did admit however there is nothing the EPW committee can do to force them to follow the mandates set forth by Congress.

“Unfortunately, the only thing we can do is bring attention to it,” Rounds said. “Call them on the carpet by bringing public attention and focus to the issue. Because we in Washington through the years have not done a very good job of purse string controls on the Corps of Engineers – or for that matter on the other Federal agencies – there have very little respect for Congressional committees.”

Since the flood, Rounds said he has been confronted with several other issues involving the Army Corps’ management of the Missouri River, including the Promise Bridge on the Cheyenne Sioux Tribal lands which is causing the Moreau River to flood and access easement and surplus water storage charges for water systems along the river.

“In 2008, the Army Corps issued Real Estate Guidance Policy Letter Number 26,” he said. “This directive required municipal and industrial water users from the Missouri River Mainstem Reservoirs to acquire a water storage contract from the Corps before the Corps would issue an access easement for a pump site. Since the issuance of this guidance policy, the Corps has been seemingly unable or unwilling to issue access easements to South Dakotans seeking to utilize water from the Missouri.”

Additionally, Rounds said the Corps has been undertaking surplus water studies and engaging in a rulemaking effort to standardize how the Corps will charge citizens for surplus water storage.

The 2014 WRRDA bill prohibited the Corps from charging a fee for surplus water for ten years. During the meeting Rounds suggested that this prohibition should be permanent – South Dakotans should not be required to pay a fee of any kind for using water from the Missouri River.

“Proper management of the Missouri River is vital to life in the Midwest,” he said. “We depend on the Missouri River not only for recreation, but for agriculture and irrigation, shipping and hydroelectric power. The Missouri River is vital to our livelihood and our economy.”

Rounds said that the hearing will be open for two weeks and that anyone wishing to comment on what was said to mail statements to his office.

A recording of the hearing is available at https://www.facebook.com/SenatorMikeRounds/.

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