Americans like to think of their Army as apolitical. It just takes orders, fights wars, and provides objective tactical and strategic analysis to our political leaders. This perception of the Army could not be further from the truth. The Army is a political animal with finely-honed predatory skills. It has its own agenda in both domestic and foreign affairs. Often, the Army’s self-interest is in direct conflict with the social good; a case in point, the present massive Army budget during an era of record high deficits.
The Army’s most important institutional goal is self-preservation. Right now, its authority along the Missouri is under fire – it is coming under intense public criticism for its mismanagement of the Missouri River in the lead up to the Great Flood of 2011. Much of that criticism is legitimate and the Army deserves it. But do not think for a moment the Army is going to take all of the recent verbal and written attacks against it lying down. It did not gain hegemony along the Missouri River by being Midwestern nice. In the twentieth century, it wrestled the Missouri from a number of competing, heavy-weight institutions and states, including the Bureau of Reclamation, a nascent Missouri Valley Authority, the state of South Dakota, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Department of Agriculture, and the state of North Dakota.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the State of North Dakota wanted to build Garrison Dam to provide residents with hydropower, irrigation water, and a recreational lake. The Army killed that project by ruling that the unstable foundation conditions at the Garrison site precluded the construction of a massive dam there. Army officers in Washington and Kansas City also feared that the North Dakota dam and reservoir would siphon water away from the barge channel then taking shape between Kansas City and the river’s mouth. And yet, in the mid-1940s, the Army reversed itself on the feasibility and safety of the Garrison Dam site and went ahead and built the dam. Why did it do so? Because the Pick-Sloan legislation gave the Army control over the dam and its stored waters.
The Army is currently facing the biggest challenge to its authority along the Missouri River since the 1930s. The future of the river is wide open. Recently, senators from North Dakota and Missouri established the “Missouri River Working Group.” It is apparently a bi-partisan, inter-basin organization seeking cooperative solutions to the river’s recurrent flood problem. But the short-lived cooperation between the Upper Basin and the Lower Basin is already breaking down. Just a few days ago, the Army’s Jody Farhat stated that North Dakota officials had pressured the Army to keep Lake Sakakawea high this past spring for its walleye fishery and the recreational industry based on it. Farhat’s statement represents the Army’s first, sharp left-hook in what is going to be a slugfest over the river’s future management. Farhat and the Army are blaming the upstream states and their fishery for the high reservoir levels this spring. That puts the onus for the lack of storage space in the reservoirs, and the consequent Great Flood of 2011, squarely on the shoulders of the Upper Basin.
It should be noted that the Army and congressional representatives from the Lower Basin have mentioned nothing (since the flood began in May) about the Army’s legal requirement to store water in the late winter and early spring in the Dakota reservoirs to ensure a nine-foot depth in the lower river’s navigation channel between April 1 and December 1. Additionally, not one Senator from Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas or Missouri has acknowledged that the navigation channel, with its reduced width and carrying capacity, worsened flooding from Ponca, Nebraska, to the mouth. To admit that the navigation channel and its water requirements were a root cause of the flood incriminates the Army and its downstream backers. Moreover, if the Army’s navigation role along the Missouri came to an end, which it should, other federal agencies and state entities could seek authority over segments of the river or at least a different hydraulic regime along the Missouri. That is something the Army will not abide.
Obviously, the Army wants to keep its hold over the Missouri. That is why it is blaming North Dakota for the high reservoir levels. Look for the fight over the river’s future to become more vicious in the weeks and months ahead. The Army and its downstream coaches know how to fight – that is why they have determined river policy since the 19th century and why the Upper Basin, and especially North Dakota, lost every major bout with the Army and Lower Basin. It is sad to admit, but the Upper Basin is a water colony of the Lower Basin and it has been from the git go. Every time the Upper Basin has resisted its subordinate role along the river, the Army has knocked it down and out.