The Corps’ Intransigence and the Reasons for It

On Thursday, November 3, 2011, members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers met with the public in Sioux City, Iowa, to discuss the flood of 2011 and the management of the Missouri River in the months ahead.  The public finally had a chance to vent its anger at the object of its long-held scorn – and vent it did.  When the clean-cut, straight-laced Brigadier General John McMahon took the podium and told the surly crowd that he continued to have full confidence in the skills and abilities of his Missouri River reservoir operations staff – the same staff that determined the reservoir release schedule this past spring with such disastrous results – the audience erupted in a cacophony of catcalls and boos.  But the general, who appeared in front of the throngs in his battle dress uniform, stared back at the seething mass of humanity and repeated the statement a second time – to more boos and sighs.

At another point during the meeting, McMahon asserted that he had decided not to lower the reservoirs below the previous base level of 56.8 million acre feet (MAF) at the start of next year’s runoff season, which begins on March 1, 2012.  That base level only frees up 22% of the available storage in the reservoirs to capture an approaching super flood. That base level had proven inadequate this year.  McMahon’s determination to adhere to the status quo going into next year brought down further derision upon his shoulders.  A number of individuals in the crowd stated that they could not understand why he would not drop the reservoirs below 56.8 MAF in order to reduce the risk of another deluge.  It was apparent from the corps’ own statistics that the creation of even 4.6 MAF of additional storage in the reservoirs would substantially diminish the flood threat below Gavin’s Point Dam.  But McMahon did not provide an adequate explanation for his decision – which left the crowd fuming.

Throughout the evening, the corps failed to provide the public with the answers it wanted to hear. For example,when asked whether the navigation channel south of Ponca, Nebraska, worsened flooding this year, a corps’ official first acknowledged that the constricted channel did play a role, then he reversed himself and said that it did not contribute to the flood.  This confusing response left the audience wondering about the truth.  It further diminished the already rock-bottom credibility of the corps. When asked about how concerns about hydropower production or the water storage requirements of the navigation channel influenced the reservoir release schedule this spring, officials did not offer an understandable explanation.

By the end of the meeting, it became apparent that the corps would neither admit the real causes of this year’s man-made disaster nor take any responsibility for it.  There are a number of reasons for the corps’ stance.  The corps can offer the public meaningless platitudes because it has very powerful backers.  McMahon is not someone who fears the public.  He displayed an amazing degree of confidence and detachment during the public meeting.  His attitude likely stems from the support extended to him by the basin’s governors and senators.  They have his back, so long as he remains their loyal front man and public punching bag.

McMahon kept the reservoirs high going into this year’s runoff season for a host of reasons unrelated to flood control. He wanted high reservoirs for hydropower production, the reservoir fishery, the water supply requirements of downstream municipalities and power plants, and to sustain a nine-foot depth in the navigation channel from March through December.  If he publicly admitted that the water requirements for those other purposes kept the reservoirs high in early 2011 and prevented the corps from capturing the spring and summer’s record runoff, then the corps would be responsible for the flood and its costs. 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. (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 (Central Green Co. v. United States, 531 U.S.C., 2001).  It is possible the army wants to prevent a legal firestorm. McMahon’s backers in Congress and the various state capitals want to avoid lawsuits and the legal investigations that might implicate them in the flood.

The corps will not take responsibility for the flood because it in fact is not wholly responsible for the deluge.  The basin’s government representatives are responsible for the flood too. For instance, governors Jay Nixon (D-MO) and Terry Branstad (R-IA) have both been long-time supporters of the flood-prone navigation channel.  Through the years they worked to kill any effort to modify the navigation channel to widen it out, which would have lessened flood heights in 2011. Also, for decades, the federal representatives from Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota have sought high reservoirs for hydropower production and the reservoir fishery.  Just this past year, Senator John Hoeven (R-ND) urged the corps to keep the reservoir levels up to protect the reservoir fishery in Lake Sakakawea.

Finally, McMahon did not make the decision to keep the reservoirs high going into 2012 without consulting with the basin’s federal representatives.  They agreed to his recommendations.  It is not coincidental that his decision to maintain the reservoir base level at 56.8 MAF was made only weeks after meeting in secret with the Senate Missouri River Working Group. Undoubtedly, McMahon is supported by senators such as Tom Harkin (D-IA), Jon Tester (D-MT) and Clair McCaskill (D-MO).

So if you want the reservoirs dropped further, the flood-prone navigation channel dismantled, and the concerns of Missouri Valley citizens given a priority over the monetary interests of the energy sector, upper basin tourism industry, and barge companies, put political pressure on the real power brokers along the Missouri  – the governors and senators in the Missouri basin who are meeting with the corps in secret – because they are the reason for the corps’ intransigence.

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