Missouri River levee breaches highlight Corps criticisms

51 levees breached or overtopped this spring

Missouri levee failures

COLUMBIA, Mo. - Since ABC 17 News last aired an investigation on levee conditions across mid-Missouri, the number of levees that have been overtopped or breached has nearly tripled. 

In April, 18 levees had breach or overtopped; at the start of June, that number jumped to 51. In total, those levees protect nearly $300 million worth of property.

The Army Corps of Engineers said in April that there was "nothing they could have done to prevent" this historic flooding from happening. Some Missouri lawmakers and residents disagree. 

Bob Littleton, the Brunswick-Dalton Drainage District president, said that federal levee is managed well by the Corps but there could always be improvement. The levee he helps oversee is one of the federal levees the Corps manages. 

"They (the Corps) get hammered because some think they are mismanaged and that they keep the water too long in these dams and lakes," Littleton said. Even though he has a good relationship with the Corps, he understands where there could be improvement. "They keep the water in too long, and it causes flooding. This was the same thing that happened in '93." 

LINK: Missouri levees in National Levee Database

MAP: Breached and overtopped levees



U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, has been very vocal about his frustrations with the Corps' handling of the Missouri River. 

"I've met with the Corps leadership, and I was told by them that 'We have lots of priorities, but we don't actually put them in any order,'" Hawley said. "I'm sure they are working very hard, I don't doubt that at all, but I just question their approach. I question their planning and specifically the lack of planning." 

Hawley went on to say that if the Corps better managed the river, Missouri towns wouldn't be subject to as much destruction. Hawley has introduced two bills that will make flood control and prevention a priority and create a council made up of local residents that would give input on river management.

In response, the Corps of Engineers said in an email statement that flood control has been a priority for the organization for more than a year. 

"Human life & safety are our priority in reservoir operations and serving the Missouri River system's authorized purposes," the Corps said in an emailed basement. "The system is runoff driven with the operational priorities determined by runoff conditions. Since March 2018 we have been operating for flood control as the runoff-driven purpose. During a more normal runoff year, releases are set to achieve downstream targets for system purposes such as navigation and water supply." 

The Army Corps of Engineers went on to say that "It is important to understand that had the reservoirs at all the Corps' Missouri River main stem dams been empty in March, flooding would still have occurred. Dams and levees do not prevent flooding. They are designed to manage flooding risk and reduce flood damages."

ABC 17 News found that only 14 percent of levees showed a complete pass in their inspections before they were breached. Littleton said that wasn't a complete shock due to aging infrastructure and outdated regulations. He suggested raising levee heights to help prevent future catastrophic floods, something Hawley wants to explore. 

"I think it's something that certainly could be looked at," Hawley said. 

Levee regulations have not changed since 1986, despite historic flooding in 1993 along the Missouri River.

Littleton added that even though changing levee heights would be a great solution, it's not going to be easy. That, he said, could take years and a lot of money. 

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