The Great Missouri River Flood of 2011: Not an Act of God

Placing responsibility for the Great Missouri River Flood of 2011 on God ignores all of the ways humans have contributed to the disaster.  It also absolves those partially responsible for the flood.  Even worse, it hinders us from learning from the flood so that we can prevent a similar scenario in the future.  Off the top of my head, I can think of five ways humans brought on this flood.

First, the Missouri basin states have lost millions of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres in the past five years.  CRP lands had either slowed or halted runoff into streams and rivers.  Encouraged by high commodity prices, plains and prairie farmers engaged in a Great Plow-up that converted sod to corn.  Montana lost nearly 400,000 acres of CRP land between 2006 and 2010.  That equals 625 square miles.  The two Dakotas and Montana lost 960,000 CRP acres in 2007 and another 335,000 CRP acres in 2008.  That land area is equivalent to 2,023 square miles.  Even more conservation land went into corn in 2009, 2010, and during this year’s planting season.  As a result of the Great Plow-up, drenching rains now hit cultivated cropland and quickly drain into the Missouri or one of its feeder streams.  Farmers, and their desire to maximize production and profit, contributed mightily to this flood.

Second, the Army’s navigation channel south of Ponca, Nebraska, has worsened the flooding along the Lower Missouri.  God did not build the navigation channel, the Army did.  The navigation channel with its pile dikes, revetments, and chevrons has reduced the Lower Missouri’s carrying capacity.  Consequently, the river cannot haul away the high flows discharged by Gavin’s Point Dam.  Instead, when the high flows hit the navigation channel that begins at river mile 753, the water pushes out across the Missouri Valley lowlands.  If you need confirmation of the navigation channel’s role in the flood, examine the Omaha District’s projected inundation area maps on its website.  The maps clearly show the unchannelized river between Yankton, South Dakota, and Ponca absorbing the high flows and staying almost completely within its banks.  But south of Ponca, the Missouri breaks out of its confined channel and flows out across the valley bottoms.

Third,the Army filled the Dakota reservoirs with water back in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.  Each of those reservoirs became silt traps.  Through the years, muddy deltas formed at the head of every main-stem reservoir.  When water pours into the reservoirs from upstream, it strikes the deltas, slows down, and backs up.  These deltas are a leading cause of the high water at Niobrara, Nebraska, Pierre and Fort Pierre, South Dakota, and Fort Yates and Williston, North Dakota.  The Army has repeatedly admitted that the delta which formed at the head of Lewis and Clark Lake behind Gavin’s Point Dam is a leading cause of flooding at Niobrara.  As recently as last September, North Dakota officials noted that siltation at the head of Oahe reservoir exacerbated the flooding situation adjacent to the lake.  In an ironic twist of fate, the Army’s flood control reservoirs actually foster flooding.

Fourth, God did not build McMansions mere feet from the river’s edge at Bismarck, Pierre, or Dakota Dunes.  Rich folk, with political pull and economic clout, built those modern castles.  Those houses are being flooded – or threatened with floodwater – because humans encroached on the river’s natural floodplain.  Denied access to its floodplain, the Missouri can only go up during flood episodes.  It cannot spread out to reduce its crest.  Humans should not build in a floodplain – that is a simple rule that is too often ignored.  Thus, some of the costly damages resulting from this flood could have been avoided had people chosen to live away from the river.

Fifth, the Army is required by law to provide water to the navigation channel south of Sioux City.  Nearly a quarter of the total storage space in the main-stem reservoirs is set aside to ensure a nine-foot depth in the Lower Missouri during the navigation season from mid-March to mid-November.  Had the Army not been required to store water for the navigation channel, more storage space would have been available for the approaching superflood.  Oh, and then there is human-induced climate change, but that is a whole other article.

The Great Flood of 2011 is largely the result of human action.  But if you need to place the flood on God’s shoulders in order to acquire federal crop or flood insurance payments, so be it.  I think we would all be better served by leaving God out of it.  By   taking responsibility for our role in the flood, humanity can change its behavior in ways that prevent a similar flood from occurring in the future.

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