by Joe Herring
The Missouri River basin encompasses a vast region in the central and west-central portion of our country. This river, our nation’s longest, collects the melt from Rocky Mountain snowpack and the runoff from our continents’ upper plains before joining the Mississippi river above St. Louis some 2,300 miles later. It is a mighty river, and dangerous.
Some sixty years ago, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) began the process of taming the Missouri by constructing a series of six dams. The idea was simple: massive dams at the top moderating flow to the smaller dams below, generating electricity while providing desperately needed control of the river’s devastating floods.
The stable flow of water allowed for the construction of the concrete and earthen levees that protect more than 10 million people who reside and work within the river’s reach. It allowed millions of acres of floodplain to become useful for farming and development. In fact, these uses were encouraged by our government, which took credit for the resulting economic boom. By nearly all measures, the project was a great success.
But after about thirty years of operation, as the environmentalist movement gained strength throughout the seventies and eighties, the Corps received a great deal of pressure to include some specific environmental concerns into their MWCM (Master Water Control Manual, the “bible” for the operation of the dam system). Preservation of habitat for at-risk bird and fish populations soon became a hot issue among the burgeoning environmental lobby. The pressure to satisfy the demands of these groups grew exponentially as politicians eagerly traded their common sense for “green” political support.
Things turned absurd from there. An idea to restore the nation’s rivers to a natural (pre-dam) state swept through the environmental movement and their allies. Adherents enlisted the aid of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), asking for an updated “Biological Opinion” from the FWS that would make ecosystem restoration an “authorized purpose” of the dam system. The Clinton administration threw its support behind the change, officially shifting the priorities of the Missouri River dam system from flood control, facilitation of commercial traffic, and recreation to habitat restoration, wetlands preservation, and culturally sensitive and sustainable biodiversity.
Congress created a committee to advise the Corps on how best to balance these competing priorities. The Missouri River Recovery and Implementation Committee has seventy members. Only four represent interests other than environmentalism. The recommendations of the committee, as one might expect, have been somewhat less than evenhanded.
The Corps began to utilize the dam system to mimic the previous flow cycles of the original river, holding back large amounts of water upstream during the winter and early spring in order to release them rapidly as a “spring pulse.” The water flows would then be restricted to facilitate a summer drawdown of stream levels. This new policy was highly disruptive to barge traffic and caused frequent localized flooding, but a multi-year drought masked the full impact of the dangerous risks the Corps was taking.
This year, despite more than double the usual amount of mountain and high plains snowpack (and the ever-present risk of strong spring storms), the true believers in the Corps have persisted in following the revised MWCM, recklessly endangering millions of residents downstream.
Missouri Senator Roy Blunt agrees, calling the management plan “flawed” and “poorly thought out.” Sen. Blunt characterized the current flooding as “entirely preventable” and told reporters that he intends to force changes to the plan.
Perhaps tellingly, not everyone feels the same apprehension toward the imminent disaster.
Greg Pavelka, a wildlife biologist with the Corps of Engineers in Yankton, SD, told the Seattle Times that this event will leave the river in a “much more natural state than it has seen in decades,” describing the epic flooding as a “prolonged headache for small towns and farmers along its path, but a boon for endangered species.” He went on to say, “The former function of the river is being restored in this one-year event. In the short term, it could be detrimental, but in the long term it could be very beneficial.”
At the time of this writing, the Corps is scrambling for political cover, repeatedly denying that it had any advance warning of the potential for this catastrophe. The official word is that everything was just fine until unexpectedly heavy spring rains pushed the system past the tipping point.
On February 3, 2011, a series of e-mails from Ft. Pierre SD Director of Public Works Brad Lawrence sounded the alarm loud and clear. In correspondence to the headquarters of the American Water Works Association in Washington, D.C., Lawrence warned that “the Corps of Engineers has failed thus far to evacuate enough water from the main stem reservoirs to meet normal runoff conditions. This year’s runoff will be anything but normal.”
In the same e-mail, he describes the consequences of the Corps failure to act as a “flood of biblical proportions.” His e-mails were forwarded from Washington, D.C. to state emergency response coordinators nationwide. The Corps headquarters in Omaha, NE which is responsible for the Missouri river system, claims they heard no such warning from Lawrence or anyone else. Considering the wide distribution of this correspondence, and the likely reactions from officials in endangered states, their denials strain credulity.
Whether warned or not, the fact remains that had the Corps been true to its original mission of flood control, the dams would not have been full in preparation for a “spring pulse.” The dams could further have easily handled the additional runoff without the need to inundate a sizeable chunk of nine states. The Corps admits in the MWCM that they deliberately embrace this risk each year in order to maximize their re-ordered priorities.
MWCM (Sec 7-07.2.6):
Releases at higher-than-normal rates early in the season that cannot be supported by runoff forecasting techniques is inconsistent with all System purposes other than flood control. All of the other authorized purposes depend upon the accumulation of water in the System rather than the availability of vacant storage space. [Emphasis added.]
Perhaps the environmentalists of the Corps grew tired of waiting decades to realize their dream of a “restored Missouri River.” Perhaps these elements heard the warnings and saw in them an opportunity to force an immediate re-naturalization of the river via epic flood. At present, that is impossible to know, but to needlessly imperil the property, businesses, and lives of millions of people constitutes criminal negligence. Given the statements of Corps personnel, and the clear evidence of their mismanagement, the possibility that there is specific intent behind their failure to act must be investigated without delay.
In recent decades, many universities have steeped their Natural Sciences curriculum in the green tea of earth-activism, producing radically eco-centric graduates who naturally seek positions with the government agencies where they can best implement their theories. Today, many of these men and women have risen high in their fields, hiring fellow travelers to fill subordinate positions and creating a powerful echo chamber of radical environmentalist theory.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is a victim/tool of the above-described process. The horrifying consequence is water rushing from the dams on the Missouri twice as fast as the highest previous releases on record. Floodgates that have not been opened in more than fifty years are in full operation, discharging water at a rate of 150,000 cubic feet per second toward millions of Americans downstream.
This is a mind-boggling rate of release. Consider that 150,000 cubic feet of water would fill a football field instantly to a depth of four feet. This amount of water, being released every second, will continue unabated for the next several months. The levees that protect the cities and towns downstream were constructed to handle the flow rates promised at the time of the dam’s construction. None of these levees have ever been tested at these levels, yet they must hold back millions of acre-feet of floodwater for the entire summer without failing. In the flooding of 1993, more than a thousand levees failed. This year’s event will be many orders of magnitude greater.
There are many well-publicized examples of absurd obeisance to the demands of radical environmentalists resulting in great economic harm. The Great Missouri River Flood of 2011 is shaping up to be another — only this time, the price will likely be paid in lives lost as well as treasure. Ayn Rand said, “You can avoid reality, but you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.”
We need to begin the investigations immediately. It seems that it is sanity, and not the river, that needs to be restored.