A Flood of Fault


"When farmers want less water, for example, fishermen want more, and they all complain to the Corps."

--John McPhee, Atchafalaya, 1987

The Army Corps of Engineers' Missouri River Division is not the place to work if you have a pathological need to be liked. That's because the Corp's water management priorities on the Big Muddy involve a crazy-making number of stakeholders, each with different and often conflicting interests. There are downstream barge operators and upstream recreationists, irrigators and species conservation groups, dam operators and fishermen.

This tricky reality came into stark relief this spring and summer when record snowpack in the Rockies combined with unexpectedly heavy rains to cause the worst Missouri River floods in recorded history. The Corps was forced to release water from upstream dams at historic levels to avoid overflow, structural damage and potentially even more disastrous flooding. Crops and hundreds of homes were damaged or destroyed; repairing structural damage to levees, dams and riverbanks will cost billions of dollars.

The blame game that ensued was predictable.

First, set your sites on wildlife:

Flooded downstreamers first blamed the Corps’ Congressionally authorized system management to avoid harming pallid sturgeon, least terns, and piping plovers — the three Missouri River species on the Endangered Species List--for the flooding. “The birds had something to do with it,” a North Dakota resident told The Great Plains Examiner in June.

Since 1986, when the least tern and piping plover were listed, the Corps has modified releases from mainstem dams, holding back water for certain periods in order to preserve the birds’ nesting habitat. However, Corps officials have repeatedly said that, this year, the agency "abandoned all plans to protect the sandbar habitat for piping plovers and the least terns" because of spring river conditions, reports The Examiner.

Meanwhile, the Corps has only done three spring pulses for pallid sturgeon since 2006, when the agency’s master manual was amended to include a call for two spring releases per year. What's more, the two pulses scheduled for spring 2011 were cancelled because the Corps was worried about exacerbating already high downstream flows. The pulses are supposed to mimic the river's pre-dam flow patterns, which have been thought to cue the fish to migrate and spawn (a belief that has recently been challenged by an independent science advisory panel).

“There has been zero water managed for endangered species this year,” Col. Robert Ruch, commander of the Omaha division of the Corps of Engineers, told The Examiner. In fact, in a publication explaining its handling of the floods, the Corps declares that no operational decisions this year were driven by endangered species concerns.

Next, blame the Corps and posture, posture, posture:

When downstream state leaders finally started to square with the fact that the flooding really wasn't anyone's fault, they started calling for the Corps to move flood control to the top of its priorities list, where it already is. Things like recreation and fish and wildlife pull up the rear. The Corps has said repeatedly that, "flood Control carries the highest priority during significant runoff events that pose a threat to human health and safety."

When all else fails (or doesn’t fail, given the above), change the law!:

Despite the fact that the Corps did everything by the book, in September, U.S. Rep Steve King, R-Iowa, introduced legislation that would revise the Corps' Missouri Master Manual and require the agency to recalculate the amount of storage space available for flood control in the river's six mainstem reservoirs. But, again, the Corps is already doing this. "The Corps will assume a more flexible posture as water is evacuated through the system for the remainder of the fall and early winter," said the Corps' Senior Manager for the Missouri River Recovery Program in an email. “In addition, the Corps has initiated an independent external technical analysis to determine how much more reservoir space might be reserved for flood control purposes.”

Marian Lyman Kirst is an intern for High Country News

All images courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service