With high water comes high stress, so it’s no surprise that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is under fire again for its river management this year.
You know the situation in the Missouri River basin. The Corps has upped releases at Gavins Point Dam — which is the pivot between the upper basin and the lower basin — due to heavy runoff and major storms in the upper reaches. Releases at Gavins Point are currently 75,000 cubic feet per second and are expected to remain at elevated levels for several weeks. However, for residents downstream where flooding is already a problem, the high releases are seen as not helping matters at all.
But this basin is not alone with this issue. Two weeks ago, the New York Times reported on problems and unrest along the Arkansas River basin in Oklahoma. A recent heavy rain event forced the USACE to release water from the swelling Keystone Dam which wound up exacerbating flood conditions in several communities.
For the Corps, this kind of heat is nothing new. For instance, USACE officials took a lot of criticism during the 2011 flood on the Missouri River for decisions which were perceived to aggravate flooding issues in a number of communities.
During years of extraordinary flooding, the Corps often finds itself trying to pull off an almost impossible balancing act. In the case of the Missouri River basin, it’s about evacuating water from the upper reservoirs without doing serious harm to people and places along the lower reaches of the river. What and who are the priorities?
What often happens is that situations are compounded by random elements that cannot be controlled. This was the case in Oklahoma, where a Corps official, who was being peppered with questions from angry residents during a public meeting, admitted, “The problem is when you get to a point where the rain just keeps coming.”
The Corps does indeed face a difficult balancing act. As the Times noted, “In recent years, the agency’s flood control mission has been complicated by competing new obligations to protect fish and wildlife resources, promote recreation and maintain navigation for ships and barges.”
Add to that, as some scientists are speculating, the increasing uncertainty being caused by climate change, which is creating bigger and more frequent flooding events.
The answers are not so simple.
For instance, along the Missouri River, it seems sensible to areas currently being threatened by flooding downstream to reduce the flows from Gavins Point to allow those high waters to recede. But doing that fills up the reservoirs more quickly, leaving little room for the next major rain event — which may not come for months, or may happen next week. (That observation is an example and isn’t based on any forecasts.) Also, reducing the flows at Gavins Point would subsequently allow greater and faster inflows from the swollen James, Vermillion and Big Sioux rivers — which residents in those basins would likely appreciate — which would also head downstream to compound matters. (Those rivers are usually referred to as being beyond the Corps’ control, but as one might argue, that’s not entirely true.)
Also, consider what the Corps DID do to address flooding issues here this spring. A USACE official told the Omaha World Herald recently that the Corps shut off flows from the Fort Randall Dam for a time this spring in order to help Gavins Point evacuate water. “We stopped the upper 1,440 miles of the Missouri River … for four days,” noted Col. John Hudson, commander of the Omaha District of the Army Corps of Engineers. (In total, Fort Randall flows were stopped for eight days.) The Corps also tried to alleviate the urge of water entering the system by briefly boosting Gavins Point releases to 100,000 cfs just after the March bomb cyclone. Overall, the USACE was discharging 33 percent less water downstream than it was taking in at Lewis & Clark Lake, according to the World Herald.
The USACE is certainly not infallible and it has learned from previous mistakes, even while coping with random elements that can be very sudden and unpredictable. It’s part of doing what is truly an unenviable job of being all things to all people and interests across a very broad and diverse landscape. There is no one answer that will satisfy everyone, as we are seeing yet again.