- Associated Press - Monday, June 20, 2011

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,” Mr. 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,” he 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,” Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.

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