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Reactions to Missouri River Flooding: A Glance at Where We Are Going

June 23, 2011Patrick NunnallyUncategorizedComments Off on Reactions to Missouri River Flooding: A Glance at Where We Are Going

The flooding on the Missouri River is beginning to show a lot about how contemporary reactions to disaster are sorting out.  Five recent news articles and one agency announcement illustrate my point.

According to the headline of the Des Moines Register’s article from June 17, “History shows:  Missouri River just flows where it will.”  To a degree, the article bears this out, although other writers (see below) make the point more eloquently.  Still, this piece provides good historical summaries of the Pick-Sloan Act that created the six massive reservoirs on the Upper Missouri (all now overflowing) beginning in the 1940s.  Also valuable is the notation that upstream states (Montana and the Dakotas) have always had differing interests from downstream states (Iowa, Nebraska, and Missouri).

A June 20 article in the Rapid City Journal picks up on the theme of multiple uses for the river, noting that the Pick-Sloan Act and subsequent management manuals instruct the Corps of Engineers to manage the Missouri River for eight (!) different purposes:  flood control, navigation, hydropower, irrigation, recreation, water supply, water quality, and fish and wildlife.  It will surprise no one that the Corps takes heat from all sides in trying to achieve this impossible task.  Moreover, legislation in 2009 authorized a reexamination of the 1944 Act in light of changed conditions; the study was not funded, in part, allegedly, because legislators from one part of the basin “like things the way they are.”

Clay Jenkinson, writing on June 19 in the Bismarck Tribune, takes a slightly different approach.  He, wisely I think, argues that “Nature, not the Corps of Engineers, is driving the flood.”  Well, yes.  The Corps is doing what it can to minimize damage, but a combination of record rainfall this spring and summer and a record snowpack from last winter has pushed the river to what has been described elsewhere as “a historical new data point” for water volume.  It is sad, though, that Jenkinson’s point about nature (the river) calling the shots is decidedly the minority view.  You probably noticed that none of the 8 purposes for which the Corps manages the river include “allow it to act like a river.”  So when it does–i.e. floods–we act all outraged.

“Outraged” certainly sums up the mood of lawmakers quoted by the New York Times in an article on June 17.  Once again, the Corps comes in for the bulk of the flack, as Senators, Representatives, and a Governor ask why this flood could not have been anticipated and prevented.  The argument is that more water could have been released from the reservoirs sooner, the mitigate the excessive flows coming out now (and which are predicted to keep the Missouri River at or above flood stage through August).  Great quote:  “We are not managing the river, the river is managing us”

As my son used to say when he was younger “well, duh.”  Other officials demand to hold hearings and to “be involved” in reviewing policies and procedures for flood control.  As the old quote used to go “Be afraid.  Be very afraid.”

All is not gloom and doom, though.  In an article from the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, officials from the Fish and Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey, the Corps, and several state agencies point out the unparalleled research opportunities afforded by this season’s floods.  Among the important subjects to be raised:

  • How well did Corps procedures respond to the emergency?
  • What might be expected as long term economic impacts  from the disruptions in small communities from the flood?
  • How has the river itself behaved during high water, cutting new channel areas, deepening in some areas while depositing new sandbars in others?
  • Are the impacts on rare, threatened and endangered fish and wildlife discernible?  What about on the sport fishery, which is a multi-million dollar industry in just one of the reservoirs?

We can be hopeful that examinations such as these can be conducted, and that they can let the multiple agencies, as well as advocacy groups and members of the public, learn better what it means to live with the river as it “manages” us, rather than continuing to control it.

I’m afraid I have to end on a note of concern, though.  Today (June 22) the Corps announced the formation of a Flood Recovery Task Force.  We can be hopeful that broader impacts such as those described above can be addressed, but I’m afraid that the discussion will stop with an examination of how existing flood control structures worked and what is required to shore them up before the next flood season.

There has been a lot of talk, though, about letting rivers reoccupy the floodplain, and we’ll be keeping track of those arguments.  Stay tuned!

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