For as long as I have been a journalist, farmers, environmentalists and politicians have squabbled over management of the Missouri River.
It happens when there’s a drought and it happens when there’s a flood. It happens when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, tasked with making everyone happy and succeeding with none, wants to release more water from upstream reservoirs to promote wildlife. It happens when the corps wants to restrict flows to conserve water in the upstream reservoirs.
And now that floods have again devastated northwest Missouri, the corps is again under fire, accused of making things worse by mismanaging the flows from those reservoirs, especially the Gavins Point dam that is the last check on the river. Downstream from that point, the Big Muddy carries whatever its tributaries deliver.
In this edition of Rudi ’splains it, I will attempt to show that the Missouri River defies management. In just the 36 years since I moved to the state, it has flooded to record levels along its entire length twice in one summer and beaten those records in places on several occasions since.
The Corps of Engineers has the job of managing rivers because when a young nation needed trained engineers to improve water transportation, the best-trained were graduates of West Point and in the army. Capt. Robert E. Lee was in charge of the first large-scale river improvement project that benefited Missouri when he designed dikes and rock berms to prevent Mississippi River silt from filling the port at St. Louis.
Now U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley has raised the question of whether to take river management away from the corps.
“We cannot keep doing this every four or five years, to have these kinds of floods,” Hawley said during a visit to Holt County, the St. Joseph News-Press reported. “It does raise the question about how the river is being managed."
It's an idea that was floated in the 1940s after three devastating floods in 1943. That was when the corps and the Bureau of Land Management, jealously protecting their respective turfs, put aside differences over the river and agreed on the Pick-Sloan Plan.
It is why there are five dams on the main stem of the Missouri River in Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota. Four impound vast quantities of water, while the fifth, Lewis and Clark Lake behind Gavins Point dam, is more of a flow regulator than a flood storage reservoir.
So far this year, the river hasn’t been too wild in central Missouri. It crested Thursday at Boonville with a maximum flow of 284,000 cubic feet per second. That is a little more than one-third of the record flow of 755,000 cfs in July 1993.
To help you understand how much water that is, imagine a one-acre lot, a little less than a football field. The peak flow Thursday would have filled it six and a half feet deep every second.
That measurement, an acre-foot, is how the corps measures water behind its dams. The current flood was caused in two ways — there was deep snow pack in Nebraska and South Dakota and in the second week of March it started to rain.
“The problem we had on March 13, 14 and 15 was a nasty storm came through and dumped warm rain on wet snow on frozen ground,” said Eileen Williamson, deputy director of public affairs for the corps’ Northwestern Division in Omaha.
The peak flow into Lewis and Clark Lake during the crisis was 182,000 cfs. If the lake was entirely empty, the flood flows would have filled it in three days. The water filled the flood control storage in about 12 hours and the corps compensated by increasing releases to 100,000 cfs for a six-hour period on March 14 and 15.
That peak flow, along with flows from other tributaries, reached Omaha on March 18 as 189,000 cfs. That was after the Platte River, which empties into the Missouri below Omaha, had crested. There’s no accurate measurement of how much water was pouring out of the Platte, but downstream at Nebraska City, the Missouri crested at 345,000 cfs on March 16.
The levees fell when the river reached those levels and that is what devastated the farmlands and inundated part of Offutt Air Force Base, home of the U.S. Strategic Command, not the water that came later from the increased releases at Gavins Point.
As the river spread out, its flow decreased. The crest at St. Joseph was 319,000 cfs. It was lower still at Boonville in part because there are areas just upstream where the farmland has been converted to wildlife refuge and the land is allowed to flood as the river rises.
There are a lot of things wrong with the way the corps has managed the river, both past and present. But blaming how large this year’s flood became on the corps is wrong, because the highest flows came from creeks and rivers that are not controlled by dams.
It is time once again to remind ourselves that there are few levees on the Missouri River that have never been breached or topped by flooding. Most that have not were built after the 1993 flood.
Those levees have never been truly tested. Just give the river time.
Rudi Keller is news editor for the Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.