Questions for the Corps: Halting a Deluge in 2012

This fall, the Corps of Engineers is holding a series of meetings along the Missouri Valley to promote its interpretation of the flood of 2011 and to take questions from the public regarding the Army’s management of its Missouri River hydraulic system.

Since late May, Brigadier General John McMahon, Colonel Robert Ruch, and Jody Farhat have advanced a very specific interpretation of the flood, which contends: the flood was too voluminous to contain; the huge discharges from Gavin’s Point Dam resulted from freak rain events in Montana in May; the Army made no mistakes in its management of the Missouri River hydraulic system in the months preceding the deluge; and since 2010, the operation of the reservoirs for flood control trumped the seven other authorized purposes of the hydraulic system (including the storage of water for the navigation channel and hydroelectric generation).  McMahon, Ruch, and Farhat have not strayed from the above storyline.  Nor have any of them admitted that the Army holds any responsibility at all for the flood.

But the Army’s interpretation of events is just plain wrong.  First, the upstream reservoir system can hold 73.1 million acre feet of water.  In 2011, the total runoff entering the Missouri River will be 61.8 million acre feet.  Had the reservoirs been operated differently, every drop of runoff above Gavin’s Point Dam could have been held behind the big dams.  Second, had more than 16.3 million acre feet of reservoir storage been freed up by March 1, 2011, the runoff from the “freak” rain events in Montana would have been absorbed by the reservoirs, rather than discharged through the dams.  Third, the reservoirs could have been lowered over the winter and early spring of 2011 to open up more storage space to hold back the approaching super flood.  But Farhat chose not to do it.  She dismissed the pleas of subordinates and the North Dakota State Engineer to drop the reservoirs.  Fourth, the Army filled the reservoirs in 2010 and early 2011 for a host of purposes unrelated to flood control – such as the generation of hydroelectricity, the maintenance of a nine-foot depth in the navigation channel south of Ponca, Nebraska, and the storage of water for the successful spawning of walleye in the upstream reservoirs.

The Army insists on its version of events because it fears legal repercussions.  U.S. law stipulates that the Army is not liable for the damage costs of a flood so long as the flood is deemed an act of God, i.e. “freak” weather events. (33 U.S.C. Section 703c). Yet, if the Army manages its reservoirs for purposes unrelated to flood control and then causes flood damages, the Army is liable for damages, i.e. managing the reservoirs to ensure water for the navigation channel or for downstream municipalities and power plants (Central Green Co. v. United States, 531 U.S.C., 2001).

When the Army meets with the public, it should be held accountable.  Attendees at the meetings might want to ask Army officials the following: 1) Why did the Army inform the public of the coming deluge only days before its arrival?  2) Why isn’t the Army going to free up more than 16.3 million acre feet of reservoir storage space before the start of next year’s runoff season?  That amount of storage was insufficient this year to contain the flood.  Significantly lowering the reservoirs would completely eliminate the risk of a flood next year and make it unnecessary to rush repairs to levees along the lower valley.  3) Will the Army rebuild the flood-prone navigation channel south of Ponca, Nebraska?  If so, why?  Since it worsens flooding and carries almost no barge traffic north of Kansas City.  4) What role did the reservoir recreation industry, the energy sector, Missouri and Mississippi River navigation interests, and lower valley farm organizations play in keeping the reservoirs high going into 2011?  5) How did the navigation channel’s pile dikes and revetments increase the river’s destructive power during the flood?  6) Why, since the 1950s, did the Army encourage construction in the river’s floodplain – with such devastating results?  7) Why are government representatives from the basin meeting in secret with the corps?  What are they hiding from the public?  The answers to these questions will help Missouri Valley residents and their representatives (who have ultimate authority over the river) make informed decisions about the river’s future management.

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