The Corps Hasn’t Taken the Threat of Flooding Along the Missouri Seriously

Every snowstorm and every rain event that occurs in the Missouri Basin between now and spring will increase the odds that the Missouri River will flood in 2020.

National Weather Service meteorologist Mark Fuchs recently stated that the Missouri Basin can expect a wetter-than-normal winter.  In addition, the soils in the Upper Midwest and Northern Plains are either saturated or nearing saturation.  Fuchs fears that all the moisture presently lying atop the land, stored beneath it, or yet to accumulate on it, will lie in wait till the spring thaw.  And if that thaw comes in a hurry, like it did in March, 2019, then the Missouri will leap out of its banks again, with potentially catastrophic consequences for those living in the valley south of Sioux City.

Officials at the Corps of Engineers have said that they are aware of the potential for flooding in 2020, and that they are doing everything possible to avert another disaster in the months ahead.

But as everyone knows, actions speak louder than words; and the Corps’ actions along the Missouri indicate that it hasn’t taken the flood threat seriously.

For example, runoff amounts into the Missouri are now greater than ever.  In 2011 and 2019, runoff was more than double the long-term annual average.

Yet, the river south of Sioux City remains constricted by the Corps’ navigation channel, which means it cannot carry the extreme flows entering it.  The Corps knows that the navigation channel is a problem.  Brigadier General Peter Helmlinger, Commander of the Corps’ Northwestern Division, the organization tasked with managing the Missouri, admitted in August, 2019, when he said this about the Lower Missouri, “We have to increase the volume of water that can be carried safely down the river.”

In addition to the flood-prone navigation channel, the Corps only sets aside about 16.3 million acre-feet of reservoir storage each year to store floodwaters, which is only about twenty-two percent of the 72.4 million acre-feet of reservoir storage space that exists behind the big dams.  In both 2011 and 2019, that 16.3 million acre-feet of storage was not enough to keep high flows out of the river below Gavin’s Point Dam.

Then there are the levees erected along both banks of the Lower Missouri.  Those levees sit too close to the river. Consequently, when high flows pour forth from Gavin’s Point Dam, the Missouri cannot spread out to lower the height of its flood crests.  Instead, the river can only go up, until it overtops the levees.

Had the Corps been serious about reducing the flood threat after the 2011 deluge, it would have done three things: 1) increased the lower river’s ability to carry high flows by widening its channel area; 2) increasing the amount of reservoir storage space devoted strictly to flood control, and; 3) pulling the levees back from the river.  But the Army did not do any of those things.

In the aftermath of the 2011 flood, the Corps repaired the flood-prone navigation channel, kept the amount of reservoir storage devoted to flood control at only 16.3 million-acre-feet, and rebuilt the levees close to the river – all at a cost of over a billion dollars.  The Corps’ work primed the river for another major flood.  That flood came in 2019.

You may find it hard to believe, but the Corps is responding to the 2019 deluge in the same way it did to the 2011 flood.  It is spending over a billion dollars to repair the navigation channel and rebuild the levees close to the river.  It also plans on keeping the amount of reservoir storage devoted to flood control at a mere 16.3 million-acre-feet.  Helmlinger, in a moment of candor, admitted that the Corps is restoring the Missouri River hydraulic system to its pre-flood status.  So, the Corps, at this very moment, is priming the river for yet another major flood – one that could come in a matter of weeks or months.

And there is more….

Corps officials have acknowledged that they have never studied whether, or how, the navigation channel contributes to flooding.  Not once.  Not after the 1973 flood, the 1984 flood, the 1993 catastrophe, or the 2011 deluge.  The Corps hasn’t studied the navigation channel because it is afraid of what it and the public might learn – that the navigation channel has fostered flooding along the lower valley for decades.

Top officials with the Corps have said they want to conduct a comprehensive survey of the river and its basin – to find a solution to the flood problem.  Such a survey will take from three to five years to complete, while the construction of any new flood control works will take even longer.  As everyone along the valley knows, we do not have the luxury of waiting up to five years for the Corps’ flood control recommendations.  The river could flood in every one of the next five years.  The study should be started now – and completed as soon as possible – and it needs to examine the role of the navigation channel in the flooding.

Helmlinger recently said that no matter what any future flood control survey discovers – the navigation channel will remain in place.  That makes no sense whatsoever.  If the navigation channel fosters flooding – which the historical record shows that it does – it should be dismantled.  Helmlinger made that statement because the navigation channel is the foundation of the Corps’ legal and financial authority along the entire Missouri River.  The general is putting the Corps over Country.  His words also mean that the Corps cannot be trusted to do an objective flood survey of the Missouri and its basin.  Its leadership is too self-interested, too beholden to the Farm Lobby, and too concerned with institutional preservation to conduct a fair examination of the flood problem.

For far too long, the Corps has not taken the flood threat along the Missouri seriously.  And why should it?  It has no incentive to change.  After every flood, its officers and civilian employees receive hundreds of millions of dollars from America’s taxpayers to repair busted levees and reconstruct the navigation channel.  A flooding Missouri has kept the Corps in business – Big Business.

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