Good Luck Sandbagging

Today, the Army announced its management plan for the Missouri River reservoir system for the remainder of 2011 and early 2012.  In preparation for the 2012 runoff season, the Army will drop the water volume in the reservoirs to 56.8 MAF (million acre feet) by March 1, 2012.  That level will free up 22% of the reservoir system’s available storage for next year’s runoff.  Surprisingly, that is the same amount of reservoir storage space that existed at the start of this year’s runoff season.  We now know that 22% was not enough to stop the Great Flood of 2011.  Had the reservoir system had available 30% or 40% of storage this past spring, the flood of 2011 would have been sharply curtailed or wholly contained by the Dakota and Montana dams.  The lack of adequate reservoir storage was a primary cause of this year’s flood.

The Army insists it can keep the reservoirs high again in 2012 because the probability is low of a repeat next year of record amounts of runoff.  The extended forecast for the upper basin indicates above-average precipitation for the fall and normal to below-average precipitation for early 2012.  The Army has concluded that the reservoirs will be able to handle the runoff stemming from that forecast.  Basically, the Army wants us all to believe that everything is going to be just fine in 2012.

Maybe everything will be okay or maybe it won’t.  The Army’s Jody Farhat claimed that in all the years preceding 2011, a 56.8 MAF reservoir base level had been enough to “capture spring runoff and manage water flow through the system.”  But that reservoir level failed miserably in 2011.  It also contributed to lower valley flooding as recently as 1984, 1993, 1995, 1997, and 2010.  That Farhat can tell the public that the traditional reservoir base level has been “adequate” in the face of this year’s flood, and the lower valley floods of recent memory, is simply beyond comprehension.

It is important to understand that probabilities are not certainties.  Although there is a low probability of a recurrence of the 2011 runoff season in 2012, there is also a probability it will happen again.  Weather forecasting is rife with unknowns.  Even with the most advanced Cray supercomputers and satellite imagery, American weather forecasters cannot predict with 100% certainty the weather a day in advance, let alone six months or a year from now.  Simple prudence would suggest the Army should lower the reservoir system base level to 51 MAF (which frees up 30% of available storage) and alter the reservoir release schedule this winter and next spring to open up that additional space.  Such actions would give the Army, and the people living in the Missouri Valley, more insurance against another catastrophic flood in 2012.  But the Army and our government representatives have decided to gamble with lives and property – and the question must be asked – why?

In the United States, most political puzzles can be solved by simply following the money trail.  Today’s decision by the Army satisfies powerful economic interests located within the basin.  The Army engineers on the Missouri take orders from the senators and congressional representatives from the basin states.  Those representatives in-turn take orders from their wealthy backers.  Since the meeting of the Missouri River Working Group on July 13, 2011, in Washington D.C., the Army engineers have been in regular communication with the basin’s political leaders.  Senators Claire McCaskill, John Hoeven, Jon Tester, and the rest of the Working Group signed-off on the Army’s decision today to keep the reservoir base level high next year.  All of them want the status quo along the river.  Any lowering of the reservoir base level disrupts reservoir and open river recreation; hydropower production; flow volumes for downstream navigation; and water supplies to upper basin irrigationists and the 18 mega power plants and cities in the lower valley.  An independent source recently estimated the annual worth of each of those economic sectors at $87.1 million, $741 million, $3 million, and $610 million respectively.  The Army’s plan protects those economic sectors.  But it proposes nothing new in the form of flood control.  The rest of the valley’s residents, its average Joes and Janes, are still at risk of another flood.  What is shocking is that the powers-that-be did not allow for even a tiny reduction in the reservoir base level.  They obviously want to maximize the monetary benefits of the system, even if such a policy puts society at-large at risk of another flood.  That line of reasoning is so very American and so very dangerous.  It is the same profit-over-people logic that led to the Exxon Valdez disaster, the inundation of New Orleans during hurricane Katrina, and last year’s BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  It is a policy approach that: takes big risks, makes loads of money for a handful of society’s wealthiest citizens, and lets the American taxpayer clean-up the mess when things go horribly awry.

Today’s decision was made without an ounce of public input.  It was also done behind closed doors in places such as Washington DC, Omaha, and Portland.  You have to love American “democracy.”  We have a political system in which the few make the decisions for the many without their consent.  Our society is about as democratic as China and Russia.  What is so beautiful about today’s decision is that political leaders can claim the Army made it.  They do not have to take responsibility for it.  If a flood strikes the valley next year because the reservoir base level remained too high, the Army will take the heat.  Those government representatives seeking re-election next year (such as McCaskill and Tester) can then accuse the Army of incompetence and still win their campaigns.

If you consider the recent decision-making process related to the management of the upstream reservoirs appropriate and democratic – and you are satisfied with keeping the reservoir levels high – well – good luck sandbagging.

(Above photograph courtesy of the Omaha District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Elite Sandbaggers Division)

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