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Published January 17, 2012, 10:50 AM

Avoid repeat of Missouri flooding

As steps are taken to avoid a repeat of Missouri River flooding in 2011, a panel’s recommendations for flood control should be considered

By: Rapid City (S.D.) Journal, Rapid City (S.D.) Journal

RAPID CITY, S.D. — Could last spring’s devastating flooding on the Missouri River have been prevented?

According to an independent report released in December: probably not.

A panel, which included hydrologists from the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Weather Service, concluded that the flood disaster was “clearly an extreme event with the largest volume of annual runoff on record.” The flooding was caused by snow runoff in the Missouri River drainage area, coupled with May rainfall in Montana that was more than 300 percent above normal, the report says.

The panel absolved the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of blame for the flooding, finding that decisions by the Corps’ reservoir managers were consistent with directions from its Master Manual, which guides the Corps in managing the flow of water on the 2,341-mile-long Missouri River through its dams and levee systems.

The fact that the Corps’ Master Manual for managing the Missouri River reservoirs did not account for the possibility of record rainfall in upstream states is reason enough to revise the manual.

However, the Corps is required to keep water in the upstream reservoirs as it manages the river for eight competing uses: flood control, irrigation, navigation, hydroelectric power generation, water supply, water quality, recreation and fish and wildlife enhancement.

Some of the uses demand the release of water from the six dams on the Missouri, and some of the uses require water be held in the reservoirs. Because four of the dams are in South Dakota, the state has pressured the Corps to keep more water in the reservoirs for recreation and fishing.

The dams were built originally to provide hydroelectric power and flood control. We saw what happens when flood control takes a back seat to competing uses.

Despite concluding that the 2011 flood was not within the power of the Corps of Engineers to prevent, the panel recommended that the Master Manual be updated for flood-control storage, improved monitoring of snowmelt in Plains states and the northern Rocky Mountains, better collaboration with weather forecasting and water monitoring agencies and improved monitoring systems for the Missouri’s tributaries.

Revising the Master Manual for the Missouri River system will provoke a fight among the users, and already Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer has said he opposes reducing water storage in Fort Peck Reservoir, the first of the Missouri River dams.

The independent panel’s recommendations for improving Missouri River flood control should be taken seriously. As much as we appreciate the value of recreation on the Missouri River and its reservoirs, the upstream states of Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota may have to live with lower reservoir water levels in spring or face a possible repeat of the 2011 flood.