The Great Missouri River Flood: Ten Questions for the Upcoming Investigation

On August 19, 2011, seven GOP governors (or their representatives) from the Missouri basin met in Omaha, Nebraska, with officials from the Army to discuss this year’s flood along the Mighty Mo.  Because the governors closed the meeting to the public, we do not know what the Army told the governors or what if anything the Army and the politicians decided about the future management of the river.  During a joint press conference following the meeting, the governors stated that flood control must be the Army’s top priority along the Missouri in the years ahead.  It is indisputable that flood control should be of paramount importance in the operation of the Missouri River reservoirs.  No one in his/her right mind would argue that storage of water in the Dakota and Montana reservoirs for the lower river’s navigation channel should trump the need to create space in the reservoirs for an approaching super flood or that the reservoirs should be kept dangerously high in the spring so that Dakota sport fishers can catch a few more walleye during the summer.

The governors also called for an independent investigation of the causes of the flood and the Army response to it.  This is the most significant proposal to emerge from the meeting.  Any investigation by the Army, U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Senate, or governors themselves will likely fail to provide the public with adequate answers to its flood questions.  The reason is simple.  Military officials and government representatives hold a degree of responsibility for this year’s disaster.  Take for example governors Jay Nixon (R-MO) and Terry Branstad (R-IA).  Both of these men have been long-time supporters of the Missouri River navigation channel that stretches from Ponca, Nebraska, to the mouth.  For decades, Nixon and Branstad opposed any modification of the upstream reservoir release schedule or the channelization structures in the lower river that might threaten the continued maintenance of the navigation channel.  Yet, we now know that the annual water storage requirements of the navigation channel, along with the 8,300 pile dikes and revetments in the lower river, contributed to this year’s unprecedented flood.  Not surprisingly, Nixon and Branstad are now shrill in their support of flood control.  Undoubtedly, they want to deflect public attention away from their long-standing support for the flood-prone navigation channel.

Any independent investigation should answer the following ten questions.

1) Why are the basin governors and the members of the Senate’s Missouri River Working Group meeting in secret with the Army and what are they hiding from the public?

2) Why did Brigadier General John McMahon arbitrarily decide to keep the reservoir system’s base water level unchanged at 56.8 MAF going into the 2012 runoff season?  That base water level – which only frees up 22% of available reservoir storage for a descending super flood – represented a primary cause of this year’s flood.  In other words, why is McMahon unwilling to lower the reservoirs next year to prevent a repeat of this year’s flood?

3) Why did the Army inform Missouri Valley residents of the pending deluge only days before its arrival?

4) Did concern for endangered species and the preservation of habitat influence the operation of the Montana and Dakota reservoirs in early 2011?

5) How did the reservoir water storage requirements for the navigation channel, the reservoir fishery, and hydropower generation influence the Army’s reservoir release schedule in the months preceding the flood?

6) Who at the local, state, and federal government level urged the Army to keep the reservoir levels high going into the 2011 runoff season and why?

7) What role did the navigation channel and its thousands of pile dikes and revetments play in the flood?  More specifically, how much did the Army’s training structures reduce the lower river’s carrying capacity, raise river levels south of Ponca, affect the river’s current velocity, and foster erosion of expensive urban real estate and agricultural land?

8) What part did energy corporations, the Mississippi and Missouri River navigation interests, and lower valley farmers play in keeping reservoirs levels high throughout the winter and spring months?

9) How did the Army, state governments, and federal officials determine the allocation of flood fighting resources?  For example, why was such a huge effort made to secure the property of the residents of Dakota Dunes, South Dakota, while other valley inhabitants, including those on the Omaha Indian Reservation, had to fend for themselves?

10) How did climate change, floodplain development, and the loss of CRP acres contribute to this year’s record runoff?

As a nation that still professes to be a democracy, the public deserves answers instead of secrecy.  A truly independent and transparent investigation of the flood, the decision-making process leading up to it, and the actors involved in those decisions, will provide the answers we need as a society.  Once we learn the multiple causes of the flood, we can take the necessary steps to prevent a similar catastrophe in the future.  Additionally, when we know why some communities were saved this year and others were allowed to sink, we can ensure that social justice prevails in the allocation of resources during the next disaster.

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