ST. JOSEPH, Mo. – The supply of sand used to fill hundreds of thousands of bags needed to fight off the swollen Missouri River is running low after weeks of relentless flooding. It's a problem that could get worse as the river is expected to remain high through August, making it unsafe to gather sand from the easiest place to get it: the river itself.
The sand shortage comes as the bloated river rose to within 18 inches of forcing the shutdown of Cooper Nuclear Plant at Brownville, Neb. It stopped and ebbed slightly Monday, a reprieve caused by levee breaches in northwest Missouri.
Flooding is a concern all along the river because of the massive amounts of water that the Army Corps of Engineers has released from six dams. Any significant rain could worsen the flooding especially if it falls in Nebraska, Iowa or Missouri, which are downstream of the dams.
During the next few days, the river is expected to rise as much as 5 to 7 feet above flood stage in much of Nebraska and Iowa, and as much as 10 feet over flood stage in parts of Missouri. It could stay above flood stage into August.
The Army Corps of Engineers is monitoring the sand supply, said Jud Kneuvean, chief of emergency management for the corps' Kansas City District. He said a ton of sand produces about 60 sandbags. Sand also is piled along weakened areas of levees to prevent seepage.
"You need lots of sand, lots of sand," Kneuvean said.
In a pinch, other materials can be used — everything from gravel to lime products.
"Unfortunately, though, when some of those get wet they harden up and it decreases the flexibility of sand bags and it basically forms concrete," Kneuvean said.
Dan Sturm, the fire chief in Hamburg, Iowa, joked that his community deserves blame for thinning sand supplies.
"We probably took all the sand," Sturm said.
Hamburg has filled at least 250,000 sandbags and dumped truckloads into fabric-lined metal-frame baskets to create a makeshift barrier to hold back water pouring through a breached Missouri River levee.
Downstream, St. Joseph has filled 365,000 sandbags to reinforce low spots on levees and protect city buildings and the airport at Rosecrans Air National Guard base, said public works director Bruce Woody.
The local supply of sand quickly ran out after flooding began in St. Joseph, and the river was moving too swiftly to allow for dredging, Buchanan County emergency director Bill Brinton said. The county had to ship in sand from Topeka, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo.
Atchison, Kan., also had to purchase sand from the Kansas City area, about an hour's drive away, city manager Trey Cocking said.
Suburban Kansas City-based Ash Grove Aggregates & Ready Mix, which sells sand, typically dredges the river at St. Joseph for sand. Because the river is so high and the current so strong, the company has been forced to cease dredging and may not start again until August, company president Allan Emby said.
Despite the shortage, he is refusing to raise the price.
"I can't morally in my own brain think about increasing prices because of flooding," Emby said.
Mark Becker, spokesman for Nebraska Public Power District, said the river rose to 900.56 feet at Brownville on Sunday, then dropped to 900.4 feet later in the day and remained at that level Monday. The Cooper Nuclear Plant was operating at full capacity.
The utility sent a "notification of unusual event" to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission when the river rose to 899 feet early Sunday morning. The declaration is the least serious of four emergency notifications established by the federal commission.
Cooper is one of two nuclear plants along the Missouri River in eastern Nebraska. The Fort Calhoun Station, operated by the Omaha Public Power District, is about 20 miles north of Omaha. It issued a similar alert to the regulatory commission June 6.
The river continued to rise along the Missouri-Kansas border, but by Monday afternoon, there were no new trouble spots.
Craig Sheppard, manager of the levee that protects the airport in St. Joseph, said the earthen structure was in good shape and should hold, barring unforeseen heavy rains to the north.
"As far as picking up and running from the river, there's no need to do that," Sheppard said.
In Andrew County, north of St. Joseph, a couple of trouble spots along levees have been stabilized. Most residents in towns threatened by high water have already left or are preparing to do so, said Roger Latham, emergency management director for the county.
"We know it's all going to come down here eventually, and the concern that we have about the levees is they really haven't been tested since 1993," Latham said.
Brig. Gen. John McMahon, the commander of the U.S. Army Corps' Northwestern Division, traveled to Missouri's capital city Monday at the behest of U.S. Reps. Blaine Luetkemeyer and Vicky Hartzler to meet with local levee district managers, mayors and county commissioners concerned about potential flooding.
McMahon said the corps' had previously released enough water from upstream reservoirs to account for a larger-than-usual snowmelt, but had not anticipated this spring's unusually larger rainfalls that occurred in Montana and parts of the upper Midwest.
If more heavy rains hit the upper Missouri River basin, McMahon said the corps may have to increase the already record flow of 150,000 cubic feet of water from Gavins Point dam in South Dakota.
"I dread that thought, but we could have to do it. It's a very real possibility," McMahon said.
In Kansas' northeast corner, Missouri River levees were in good shape. Yet there was still concern as rain forecast into Tuesday could overload drainage systems in the small towns of Wathena and Elwood.
"The main concern right now is internal flooding," county emergency director Julie Meng said. "We'd be flooding from the inside."