As a New Flood Season Nears, Some Towns Still Can't Pay to Fix Damages From 2019
By Christina Stella , Reporter/Producer Nebraska Public Media
Jan. 21, 2020, 5:45 a.m. ·
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After last spring’s heavy rains and flooding, many Midwestern communities are still living with damaged water infrastructure. And as 2020's flooding season nears, some towns still don’t know how they’ll afford to protect themselves from more damages this year.
Brett Adams, who farms near the town of Peru in southeast Nebraska, takes the good news where he can get it. After nearly a year, the floodwater is mostly gone from his riverside farmland.
Adams is on the local levee board, which manages the town’s nearly 8 miles of Missouri riverbed. And the (unpaid) work keeps him very busy these days: Adams was on a call when I first climbed into his silver pickup, apologetically holding a finger up every so often.
After hanging up, he said he can’t afford to miss a call. Somebody might be on the other end bearing good news.
“Farming was the easy part, and it seems like I don't get to do the farming part much anymore,” he said.
We drove past the soaked and stubbly remains of 2018’s crop, and tools—once assumed lost—caked in the mud. After a few minutes, we reached the blown out levee that once kept the Missouri River away from his parent’s house.
Now a small river snakes its way through Adams’ property into a 45-foot deep pond where the last of the water stubbornly sparkles.
But Peru is far from out of the woods. Adams said repairs haven’t been made yet to the town’s levee system, which puts him and neighboring farmers at risk to flood again this year.
“We have a very small level of protection. You get above flood stage or something...the water is going to come running right back in here,” he said.
So Adams spends his days mostly trying to answer one question: where will a handful of farmers get tens of millions of dollars to fix Peru's levees.
Matt Krajewski, the Readiness Branch Chief at the Omaha District Army Corps of Engineers, said in a normal situation, the path forward might be clearer.
“If it's a federally constructed levee, then the federal government pays 100% of the rehabilitation costs,” Krajewski said.
That is, as long as it’s active in the Army Corps of Engineers’ Levee Rehabilitation program.
The Corps, which built most of the Midwest’s levees, runs the program under the Flood Control Act of 1944. Each year, the agency inspects the levee and lists whatever repairs it may need to the local levee board, which owns the infrastructure.
But if a levee board doesn’t finish upgrades in enough time, or the levee isn’t kept up to code, the Corps can mark it “inactive”.
Krajewski said going inactive severely limits how the government can help in a disaster.
“Inactive means if there's an event, then we cannot rehabilitate the structure.”
A few years back, Peru decided to make its own repair plan. The board wanted to cut costs, like paying a lawyer to fill out paperwork. Adams said they weren’t trying to shirk responsibilities for repairs—quite the opposite.
“We’re a very small levee district with an annual income of less than $30,000,” he said.
Straying from federally-mandated deadlines meant temporarily leaving the program. Adams said the board planned to reapply once repairs were completed.
“We decided to use the funds fully on fixing our deficiencies, because that's what's really going to protect you from flood event.”
But that was before any talk of bomb cyclones, or 500-year floods.
Adams and Krajewski agree that levees along the Missouri River didn’t stand a chance against the floods, with or without upgrades. A perfect storm of weather conditions overwhelmed the Missouri River Basin with more water than its infrastructure was ever designed to handle.
Nonetheless, Krajewski said the Corps still can’t make exceptions to policy. Only Congress can do that.
“Nobody here wants to walk over to those folks and say, ‘Hey, you know what? Sorry, we can't do anything.’ I mean, we don't. So we're bound by the law,” he said.
But there is some leeway for exceptions, should a breach directly threaten publicly owned infrastructure.
Across the river, a levee near Mills, Iowa was also inactive when it flooded. Krajewski said the Corps opted to partially repair the levee in order to reopen the I-29 corridor. That decision came from the Corps’ leadership office in Washington.
“It was due to the infrastructure that was directly behind that levy—public infrastructure. And it was in the it was in the best interest of the federal government,” he said.
But there are still repairs to be completed that will not be funded by the Corps.
“We do not have authority to do that.”
Different Communities, Different Impacts
Peru isn’t the only community on the hook for millions in federally constructed infrastructure repairs after 2019’s wet spring.
The Gering-Ft. Laramie Irrigation Tunnel collapsed in western Nebraska last July, leaving over a hundred thousand crop acres to shrivel in the sun for two months.
Rick Preston, who manages the irrigation district, said the uncertainty around funding repairs has only intensified since the summer.
“This district has been delivering water for 96 years, and we have never called on the state or the government to help us with it,” Preston said.
And while he said some grant money may or may not be made available to finish immediate temporary repairs, the 100-year-old system needs longer term work to protect itself from future collapses.
“Now, all of a sudden, we're in a situation and we need some help. And we can't get nobody to step up...so we're scrambling around trying to find monies to address those costs.”
He said the Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the canal, is trying to court money from other federal agencies with leftover funds. That process takes months—if not years—that Preston said the district doesn’t have.
“I can't do one dollar’s worth of work until I'm approved. And we’re in a situation where I can’t wait. If I don’t get this put back together, these farmers are gonna go without water for one more year.”
And any extra money squeezed from other federal agencies would be a loan. If the money comes through, Preston will be forced to raise water prices for farmers in order to pay it back. He worries increased prices could make it harder for producers to bounce back from last year’s immense crop losses, and even put some out of business.
“The ag economy is so poor right now. If we borrow the money and have to increase the [operation and maintenance] ten dollars an acre...Katie, bar the door, because all Hell's gonna break loose. You wouldn’t hear the end of it.”
Preston said he’s explained the situation to his elected officials over and over, and believes they understand the stakes.
“Our federal senators and our congressmen made a good attempt to get that done,” Preston said.
But despite expressing their desire to help, Preston said those feelings haven’t yet translated into any real progress.
“Every road I've turned and went down, it's a dead end.”
Peaks and Valleys
On the other side of the state, Adams wanted me to see his grain bins. He warned me of the indescribable smell of rotten corn, which remains beyond language.
They look like an art installation: a collection of cartoonishly bent metal flanked by 150,000 bushels of moldy blue-grey kernels.
He pointed to a pile of corn, steaming from the heat of its own fermentation.
“That's one of the things that really sucks,” Adams said.
“That's 2018 crop...I had the maximum amount of inputs in it, and never got to take it to market. On the flip side of it, the first thing people are going to say is, ‘Well, why the hell didn't you haul it out of here?’
Well, you can't haul that much corn that fast.”
But he’s determined to move forward past blame and regrets. He doesn’t care how many calls to lawmakers it takes.
A card with Governor Pete Rickett’s contact information laid near the cupholders in Adams’ truck. He said he practically has him on speed dial.
“It's peaks and valleys...You think everything's good, you're at a peak, you've made contacts, you've talked to congressional people, and you think things are going to happen,” Adams said.
“And then all of a sudden, nothing does, and you're down in a valley. So you know, it's kind of a little roller coaster.”
Congressman Adrian Smith represents Adams’ community, and wrote in an email that he’s trying to help wherever he can:
“I have met with local stakeholders and the Corps, and continue to pursue options to assist with repair and recovery,” Smith said.
But Adams doesn’t have any more time to talk. He’s off to another meeting.
As we pulled into his gravel driveway, he shared why he’s doubling down on his only real option: to keep going, and look for the peaks wherever he can find them.
“I don't want to sit around, and dwell, and pout about, ‘Oh my god, this happened!’ Blame, blame, blame," he said.
"Let's move forward, and figure out how to fix it.”
Editor's Note: We clarified a line regarding federal levee ownership to better reflect how the Corps' Levee Rehabilitation Program works.
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