Image: Flooded area around casino
Eric Keith  /  The St. Joseph News-Press via AP
A boat travels on floodwaters from the Missouri River near the closed Terrible's Casino in St. Joseph, Mo., on Friday.
updated 7/8/2011 6:50:29 PM ET 2011-07-08T22:50:29

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has taken the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to task for its handling of the Missouri River in a letter questioning its decision not to release more water from dams earlier in the spring to prevent prolonged flooding this summer.

The river is near historic flood levels along the more than 800 miles it stretches from the Gavins Point Dam in South Dakota to its confluence with the Mississippi River.

More than 560,000 acres in seven states have flooded, including nearly 447,000 acres of farmland, Vilsack spokesman Justin DeJong said. The flooding followed unexpected spring rains and the melting of a deep snowpack in the Rocky Mountains.

The Missouri is expected to remain near record flood stage into the fall, which farmers and agricultural groups said could result in long-term damage to the land. Soil could be washed away, and trash and silt deposited, said Keith Olsen, president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau.

O. Eugene Johnson, of Windsor Heights, has 240 acres near Hamburg that he typically leases out for corn, but this summer, it's under 6 feet of water. He also worries that by the time the Missouri recedes, it will have cut a new channel in the area.

"I'm concerned that if the land is destroyed and the river is changed, I'll end up with permanent water on my land," Johnson said.

Vilsack outlined his concerns in a three-page letter sent to Major Gen. Meredith W.B. Temple, the acting commander of the Corps, and obtained by The Associated Press. Although Vilsack said he wasn't in a position to judge how the Corps handled its dams, he asked pointed questions about the agency's decision not to release more water earlier and criticized it for not providing farmers and ranchers with more up-to-date information.

His comments add to a growing chorus of officials questioning the Corps' handling of the situation. U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., announced Friday that a bipartisan group of 14 senators from Missouri River states has requested a Senate hearing on the Corps' management of the river, and the AP obtained a letter earlier this week in which Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad expressed frustration with the Corps even before the latest flooding and urged the governors of Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska to join him in discussing the formation of a new group of downstream states.

Vilsack noted the Corps said in a March 3 report in the Omaha World-Herald that there was no need for early releases from the Gavins Point Dam and there would be little flooding unless the region received a lot of rain.

"Agriculture producers point to this report and others in justifying their concerns, and they need answers as to why releases were not made to allow for more storage in the dam system," Vilsack wrote in the letter dated June 28. "They point to forecasts related to snowpack and snowmelt and ask why there wasn't more planning or more public conversations about the implications of operating the river under such conditions."

DeJong declined to comment on the letter.

Corps spokeswoman Jasmine Chopra defended the agency's management of the river, saying it released more water than usual from Missouri River dams last fall and during the winter and this year's flooding was unprecedented. However, she also said the Corps will take another look at its response when the river recedes.

"The Corps fully intends to conduct a full-scale assessment of this year's flood to determine the effects and learn where adjustment might be warranted in the future," Chopra said.

While Vilsack addressed the Corps in his role as agriculture secretary, he also has an interest in the matter as a former Iowa governor. About a third of the flooded land is in Iowa, including about 158,000 acres of farmland.

Vilsack wrote extensively in his letter about farmers and ranchers' lack of information regarding upcoming water releases. When he took a trip to the region in mid-June, farmers and ranchers were making plans based on information that hadn't been updated since June 1, he said. Also, farmers assumed water releases would continue at 150,000 cubic feet per second and were surprised when the Corps increased that to 160,000 cfs after more rain.

"This news was delivered via the mass media with little, if any, outreach to those impacted," Vilsack wrote.

He asked that the Corps use the Agriculture Department's field offices and communications staff to better communicate with the public. He also expressed hope the Corps would take a hard look at its actions.

"I am hopeful that subsequent to this disaster, the Corps will embark on a thorough evaluation of the decision-making leading up to and during the flooding to identify pitfalls and lessons learned," he wrote. "It would be helpful to engage the public in this process."

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