On July 13, 2011, the Missouri River Working Group met for the first time in Washington D.C. The group consists of the senators from the Missouri basin states of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri. The ostensible leaders of the group are the senators from North Dakota and Missouri, John Hoeven (R-ND), Kent Conrad (D-ND), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), and Roy Blunt (R-MO). Although neither the public nor the media were privy to the closed-door discussions of the group, three participants reported after the meeting that the assembled senators exhibited a new spirit of cooperation in Missouri River matters. All the members agreed that flood control needed to be the Army’s top priority in its management of the Missouri River. That flood control should be the Army’s primary responsibility along the Missouri is obvious. No one in his/her right mind would argue that the Dakota dams should be managed for the walleye fishery rather than flood control or that the navigation channel’s annual water requirements should trump the need to create extra flood control storage space in the upstream reservoirs.
There are a number of ways to curtail the Missouri’s flooding, each one requires different sacrifices from different interests. Consequently, the states along the Missouri do have different goals on how to achieve effective flood control. To halt future floods, the causes of this flood must first be understood by all parties. The flood of 2011 had three main causes. First, the Army kept its reservoirs in Montana and the Dakotas high during the past winter and early spring to provide water for hydropower generation, the reservoir fishery, and the lower river navigation channel. Contrary to the beliefs of many basin residents, the Army did not keep the reservoirs high for endangered fish and birds. According to the Army’s own data, only 22% of reservoir storage capacity was available at the end of January 2011, which is when the Army began refilling the reservoirs. The Army believed that amount of storage space would be sufficient to capture the Missouri’s projected high runoff in the spring and summer. We now know that that 22% was not enough. Because of the Army’s miscalculation, masses of water have had to be evacuated from the upstream reservoirs to prevent the flood from becoming truly out of control.
The second major cause of the flood was the confined navigation channel from Ponca, Nebraska, to the Missouri’s mouth – a distance of 753 river miles. The Army’s pile dikes, revetments, and chevrons in the navigation channel hemmed in the Missouri, sped up its current velocity, and diminished its carrying capacity. The restricted lower river did not have the ability to safely carry away the high flows coming out of Gavin’s Point Dam. As a result, the navigation channel forced the lower Missouri up and then out of its banks. Once freed from its engineered and rock-lined prison, the river tore through the valley with terrifying speed and power. The Missouri bowled over buildings, ate away its banks, and outflanked countless pile dikes. West of Salix, Iowa, the Missouri put a whole string of pile dikes, normally anchored to the shoreline, solidly in mid-channel. Situated in the center of the Missouri, rather than along its edges, the outflanked structures act as speed bumps, slowing the river down and pushing its water sideways out across the valley floor. Although not a single lower basin congressional representative has admitted it, the navigation channel worsened flooding in the lower valley.
A third major cause of the flood has been the loss of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres throughout the Missouri basin. Since 2006, millions of acres of the basin’s most erosive land has been converted from grassland to cropland. Thousands of square miles of the Dakotas went into row crops in the Great Dakota Plow-up during the first decade of the 21st century. When monsoonal rains hit the basin in May and June, the exposed cropland quickly drained the rainwater into the Missouri or its tributaries. The Army admitted that spring runoff amounts exceeded initial projections. The Army may not have factored in the loss of CRP acres into its spring 2011 runoff projections. Thus, the reservoirs filled faster and higher than anyone in the Army initially thought possible.
The solutions to Missouri River flooding are directly related to the causes. In order to curtail or stop future floods, at least three actions must be taken by the federal government in cooperation with the basin states. First, the base level in the upstream reservoirs must be lowered from its present 56.8 Million Acre Feet. That base level was too high. Rather than have only 22% of upstream reservoir storage space available at the start of the runoff season, the Army must lower the base level so that 30% or even 40% of reservoir storage space is available when high flows begin to descend the river. Second, the navigation channel must be widened out south of Ponca, Nebraska. A broader Lower Missouri will be able to absorb high flows without jumping out of its banks. A wider river will also be able to safely carry the higher reservoir releases that will result from establishing a lower reservoir base level. Third, millions of CRP acres need to be reinstated across the Missouri basin. Those conservation lands will either stop or slow runoff into the Missouri and its feeder streams.
The upper basin states (MT, ND, SD) and the lower basin states (IA, NE, KS, MO) now agree that flood control should be the Army’s top priority, but they do not agree on how to achieve flood control. The lower basin, and particularly the state of Missouri, wants to merely alter the upstream reservoir base level, while keeping the flood-prone navigation channel intact. The upstream states on the other hand do not want a dramatically lower reservoir base level. Lower reservoirs will harm the reservoir fishery and the tourism industry based on it.
Even though the upper basin and the lower basin have different ideas on how to attain flood control along the Missouri, the makings of a compromise along the river are still possible. A compromise could include the following five provisions. 1) Reinstate the former CRP lands. Both upper and lower basin representatives should be able to easily agree on this flood control method. 2) Dismantle the navigation channel and widen the river from Ponca, Nebraska, to Kansas City, Missouri. This reach is the least utilized by the barge industry. The navigation channel here is not economically justifiable. It is also at present the narrowest river reach and the most flood-prone. At this very moment, the worst flooding is occurring along this stretch of river. Widening this reach will lower future flood heights. A wider river here will also mean the upstream reservoirs do not need to be drawn down too low to guarantee flood control for the lower valley. 3) Keep the navigation channel between Kansas City and the mouth. To placate the navigation interests in the state of Missouri, the navigation channel between Kansas City and the mouth could remain intact. This reach is the most utilized by the barge industry and thus most important economically to the state of Missouri. Nonetheless, this section could be modified to handle the higher flow volumes resulting from greater reservoir releases and climate change. 4) Drawdown the upstream reservoirs to a new base level. Establish the new base level at 30% of available storage or even 40% if it is deemed necessary. But the new base level must not threaten the upstream fishery. Lower reservoir levels will diminish the flood risk at Williston, Bismarck, Fort Yates, Pierre, Fort Pierre, and Niobrara. In the past, high reservoir levels, in conjunction with the deltas located in the headwaters of the reservoirs, posed a flood threat to all of those communities. 5) Alter the reservoir release schedule. Abandon the annual eight-month-long uniform release schedule from Gavin’s Point Dam. Oscillate reservoir levels throughout the year. For instance, more water could be pushed through the system in March/April and October/November to free up reservoir storage space for any approaching super flood. Releasing higher flows during those months will also aid the Mississippi barge industry, which begins in March and ends in November. Such a release schedule would take place before the spring planting season and after the fall harvest in the lower valley. Raising the reservoirs in the May to June period would aid the reservoir fishery.
This compromise represents a win for everyone along the Missouri River. The main thrust of the compromise is the upper basin’s acceptance of a lower reservoir base level in exchange for a wider river from Ponca to Kansas City to handle the likelihood of an increase in reservoir discharge rates and higher runoff volumes stemming from climate change. Most importantly, the upper basin secures its fishery and the lower basin maintains the navigation channel for barge traffic along the historically busiest reach of the river. However, if the lower basin states insist on maintaining the navigation channel all the way to Ponca, Nebraska, and on only lowering the reservoir base level, the upper basin states will lose. Under such a scenario, the navigation channel will remain vulnerable to high flows. As a result, the Army will have to establish a very low reservoir base level to ensure that a bigger, more voluminous Missouri (in this new era of climate change), does not enter that confined channel. Let’s all hope that Missouri, the dominant state in the basin, is at last willing to compromise.