If you breach it, you fix it

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

President Obama spent time in the Midwest recently conducting a tour of rural America. We appreciate his interest in our part of the world, and would urge him to come back and continue his tour along the Missouri River, where historic flooding has displaced hundreds of rural residents and covered hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland.

His tour should include a stop in Southeast Missouri to see the result of this spring's flooding along the Mississippi River. A town meeting might help the president explain to area farmers why the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced they will only rebuild the Birds Point Levee to 51 feet, a full 11 feet short of the levee height before the corps destroyed the levee this spring. The president might find that repairing the levee is not only the right thing to do, but also an example of economic stimulus that makes sense. This is, to borrow a phrase, the perfect example of a "shovel ready" project, and the economic benefits from rebuilding the levee to 62 feet will total in the billions of dollars over the coming years. At the end of the tour, we could sell those million dollar buses the Secret Service purchased and use the proceeds to finish rebuilding the levees.

The Mississippi River has exceeded 51 feet in 12 of the last 20 years. If the levees aren't rebuilt to their original height, farmers near the levee will have to question whether it makes sense to farm that ground at all. Financing for each spring's planting will be hard to obtain, and crop insurance will likely be unavailable, because the risks of planting will just be too high.

The corps blames budget constraints for the decision, saying they need an additional $20 million to rebuild the levee to its original specifications. The corps is holding Missouri farmers hostage to budget fights in Washington.

It may be that the corps is practicing the same tactics school boards use when money is tight. When a board feels that property taxes need to be increased, it's not unusual to threaten cutting out the football team to balance the budget. This is expected to force taxpayers into increasing the school tax. It's particularly effective when a school has a winning record and a quarterback who might possibly lead the team to the playoffs. The corps knows how unfair it is to punish Birds Point farmers for their sacrifices this spring. They know that the money will probably be found somewhere to completely rebuild those levees, so they are playing with people's lives in order to increase their funding in a time of tight budgets. The corps should quit this game immediately and do what is right.

Missouri's Gov. Nixon has courageously offered state funds to help rebuild the levees, but this is a federal levee, one that was destroyed by the federal government, and it's the federal government's responsibility to rebuild what it destroyed. As your mother told you every time you entered a store, "If you break it, you buy it." Your mother was right, and the federal government should be held to the same level of responsibility.

Blake Hurst, a farmer from Westboro, Mo., is the president of Missouri Farm Bureau.

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