“Time is Our Enemy:” The Army Stokes Fears of Another Missouri River Deluge

On Friday, September 16, 2011, the Army released its cost estimate to repair the flood damage to levees, dams, and riverbanks in the Missouri Valley.  According to officials, it will cost approximately $460 million to fix the destruction wrought on engineering structures along both the flood-stricken Missouri and Columbia rivers.  The Army claims that the money must be forthcoming soon, and the damage must be fixed forthright, or the Missouri Valley and its residents will face grave danger during the 2012 runoff season.  Referring to the need for quick action along the Missouri, Jud Kneuvean at the Army’s Kansas City District stated, “…honestly some of them [the projects] can’t be delayed.  [Without repairs] There is a high likelihood for failure.  The consequences associated with failure are high.”  Kneuvean continued to stoke the public’s fear of another deluge in 2012 with the comment that “…time is our enemy.”

Kneuvean did not specify which structures are at risk of failure.  It is unclear whether he is referring to the potential erosion of riprapped banks, the collapse of weakened levees, or god forbid, the loss of an upstream dam.  His purposeful vagueness is an overworked but effective public relations ploy.  The Army wants to manufacture fear and worst-case scenarios.  It hopes that a frightened public will then accept the Army’s agenda for the river.  And the Army’s agenda is nothing short of the complete restoration of its Missouri River hydraulic system to its pre-flood condition.  That means the reconstruction of the defunct and flood-prone navigation channel, the repair of decrepit, useless levees, and the riprapping of blown-out bank lines.  The Army wants to re-establish the status quo along the Missouri.  Yet, it was that status quo that led to the Great Flood of 2011.

Consider the following.  To completely eliminate the flood threat along much of the lower valley in 2012, the Army has to do only one thing – lower water levels in the upstream reservoirs.  Yes, it is that simple.  The single greatest cause of the flood of 2011 was the Army’s decision to keep the reservoir system base water level at 56.8 MAF (million acre feet) at the beginning of this year’s runoff season.  That base level freed up only 16.3 MAF of storage for the approaching superflood.  We now know that 16.3 MAF was not enough.  Let’s say the Army doubled the amount of available storage to 32.6 MAF at the beginning of the 2012 runoff season.  If it did, the odds of a repeat of the 2011 flood in 2012 would be nil.  But the head of the Army’s Northwestern Division, Brigadier General John McMahon, recently decided to keep the reservoir base level unchanged going into next year’s runoff season.  McMahon asserted that the Army must keep the base level at 56.8 MAF in 2012 because to lower it further would require the evacuation of more water from the reservoirs this fall, which would prevent the repair of levees and infrastructure before next spring.  His reasoning makes no sense.  If the reservoirs are dropped low enough this fall and winter, high flows will not come down the river next year to threaten any levees, homes, or farms.  A lower reservoir base level in 2012 means valley infrastructure can be repaired in an environmentally-sound, systematic, cost-effective manner over a longer period of time.  There is no need to rush repairs so long as McMahon drops the reservoir levels.  And to those who argue that the Army cannot push large volumes of water through the system during the colder months of October, November, and December, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s three-month forecast for the Missouri Basin calls for above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation.  Those are ideal conditions to move more water out of the reservoirs.   Moreover, the Army can discharge 70,000 cfs from Gavin’s Point Dam and still keep the lower Missouri within its banks.  So the argument that the Army has to keep the reservoirs high just doesn’t add up.  In all likelihood, McMahon is keeping the reservoir base level high, and creating a crisis mentality about next year’s runoff season, in order to push the Army’s institutional self-interest – which is to acquire funds and maintain its hegemony over river management.  Putting all the lower river’s broken pieces quickly back together will stall or completely kill any alternative management plans for the lower river while preserving the Army’s dominance of the stream.  Additionally, McMahon wants to ensure a plentiful reservoir water supply for hydropower production, the reservoir fishery, the lower river navigation channel, and the Mississippi barge channel.  These are all of the same reasons the Army kept the reservoirs high at the start of this year – with such disastrous results.

The Army also stated that it wants to repair the Missouri’s “riverbanks.”  The use of the term “riverbanks” is Army-speak for the navigation channel and its riprapped revetments, wingdams, and chevrons.  Reconstructing the navigation channel will represent the height of folly.  The channel carries so little barge traffic that its reconstruction cannot be financially justified on any grounds.  Moreover, the Army’s training structures worsened this year’s flood in the lower valley.  The channel’s narrow width, straightened thalweg, and lowered carrying capacity pushed high flows out across the valley lowlands with terrifying speed and force [see above photograph of rapid flows through the Army’s navigation channel].  To rebuild the navigation channel is equivalent to spending money the country does not possess to make the Missouri flood-prone again.  Who benefits from a reconstituted Missouri River navigation channel?  Not you and I.  The benefits will go entirely to riverfront farmers who want to continue to plough and plant $6.92 per bushel corn only feet from the river’s edge.  McMahon and organizations such as the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation and Iowa Corn Grower’s Association (whose official motto is “Creating Opportunities for Long-Term Iowa Corn Growers Profitability) are willing to sacrifice public safety so a handful of corn farmers can make more money.  Rebuilding some levees makes sense.  However, the Army should not rush in and repair the levees.  The feasibility of the levee system needs further study.  Some levees are too close to the river and should be pulled back from the floodplain or abandoned altogether.  The rebuilding of other levees should be the responsibility of the landowners who profit from the valley bottomlands.

For too long, fear has dominated policy-making in America.  It is a key reason this country is in such dire straits.  It led to the foolish war in Iraq in 2003 and the multi-trillion dollar bailout of Wall Street in 2008.  Fear, and its purveyors, are now leading us astray along the Missouri.  As a nation we must be guided in our policy decisions by rationalism and science rather than fear-mongering and hastily-formulated decisions.  A rational, scientific, and sequential repair program should be initiated along the Missouri.  It should include at a minimum the following actions in order of importance.  First, the lowering of the reservoir system base level to remove the risk of a repeat of the 2011 deluge in 2012.  Second, the repair of the upstream dams so they can halt the next superflood.  Third, the reconstruction of levees that protect vital infrastructure (such as power plants, bridge abutments, and interstate highways).  Fourth, the buyout of floodplain farmland to enable the Missouri to widen out in the next flood.  If a farmer wants to stay in the floodplain, he/she can build levees at his/her own expense.  Finally, not one penny of taxpayer money should be wasted to repair the navigation channel and its “riverbanks.”

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