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Blunt faults Missouri River reservoir study, says flood control must be No. 1 goal

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 18, 2012 - WASHINGTON — Could last year’s severe flooding along the Missouri River have been prevented if the giant upstream reservoirs had more space available to hold back water?

An analysis issued Friday by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers asserts that more storage space likely would have lessened — but not prevented — the 2011 flooding. And making way for such extra storage space would have reduced the river’s economic benefits for other priorities, such as barge traffic, hydropower and recreation.

That analysis irked U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who said Wednesday he is “concerned about the constant willingness of the Corps to say that flood control is the No. 1 priority and then seem to prioritize everything else first.”

Blunt, who helped organize a working group of 14 senators representing Missouri River states after last summer’s flood, told reporters he does not think “the Corps is putting enough emphasis on flood control” in its analysis of reservoir storage.

Last summer's flood, which set records in some areas, caused $630 million in damage to the levees, dams and other structures that help control the river, which flows from Montana through North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and Missouri.

The Corp’s Northwest Division, in its “Technical Analysis of Missouri River Mainstream Flood Control Storage” found that “providing additional flood control storage in the Missouri River Mainstem Reservoir System would enhance flood risk reduction in a repeat of the 2011 flood event.” But, because of the high volume of water that had to be moved downstream, “record releases would be required regardless of the amount of flood control storage provided.” (Read a summary here.)

The latest analysis is part of a wider effort to assess whether the Corps should increase the 16.3 million acre-feet of space normally cleared out of the reservoirs every spring for flood control purposes. Officials said the latest study simply provides data for the wider debate and is not making a recommendation. Related studies are ongoing.

The new report found that “lower releases would reduce flood risk below the reservoirs, but would not have prevented widespread damages,” in last year’s flood. Noting that flood control is one of five river management goals on the Missouri, the report “indicates that the other four analyzed purposes, which all require water-in-storage to maximize benefits, would experience negative impacts with additional flood control storage.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said that — even though “on its face, [the new report] appears to be supporting flood control as its first priority” — she and others “are all fearful” that the Corps might back away from its keeping maintaining that priority.

McCaskill told reporters that senators in the Missouri River working group are “united that flood control should be No. 1” in river priorities, “so I think we’ve got a very strong pushback ready if, in fact, the Corps would ever turn away” from that goal.

The working group is expected to meet again before June, and Blunt said he and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., are “looking at those reservoirs” and discussing possible legislative measures to address storage problems related to the 2011 flooding.

“How do we prevent last year from happening again?” Blunt asked, noting that “last year was extraordinary, but we have had year after year of floods that challenge the infrastructure that holds the river in place.”

Severe Missouri flooding unlikely this spring

Last year, heavy May rains and the unusually high runoff from a very heavy snowpack led to the severe flooding that continued for most of the summer.

This year, however, unusually warm and dry conditions in the Missouri River basin have resulted in below-normal runoff into the reservoirs, leaving what Corps officials say is plenty of space for storage in those reservoirs — and making it unlikely that major flooding will occur this spring.

Blunt said “we may be lucky this year” and avoid flooding, but the luck won’t hold over several years, and the long-term problems of river management need to be addressed.

Brig. Gen. John McMahon, commander of the corps’ Northwestern Division, told reporters last week that improving flood control on the Missouri would have to be wider than just increasing storage space in reservoirs and will “require a significant effort and investment over time if we’re going to reduce risk.”

“The 2011 event reminds us of what we learned just a couple decades ago after the 1993 flood,” McMahon said. He said some steps recommended after that record flood — including more clearing of floodplains — had not been implemented, mainly because of concerns about costs and political priorities.

A year after the 1993 flood, the so-called Galloway Report, had called for a comprehensive approach to "flood damage reduction" — as opposed to strict flood control — that would deploy all available tools, from building levees to clearing floodplains.

An independent study released in December that called for re-evaluating Missouri River management also suggested a review of “storage allocations” in the reservoirs. The panel said that review should examine "flood control storage needed for floods like 2011 or larger."

The four-member panel concluded that the Corps had managed those reservoirs as well as it could, given constraints that left it with "few options" to stop the deluge. The flood "was a record-breaking event with unprecedented levels of runoff that could not be predicted in advance, and the Corps responded well to a difficult test of historic dimensions," the report said.

While noting that the Corps "could have reduced the impact of the flood with more [reservoir] storage and higher releases before the flood," the experts cautioned that "these actions carried risks and consequences that did not seem appropriate to the Corps at the time." And the master manual, the plan that guides the river's management, did not give adequate guidance for an event of the magnitude of this year's flood.

Last week, the Corps’ chief water manager for the upper Missouri, Jody Farhat, told reporters that having the space to hold more water in those reservoirs would have only reduced, but not prevented, the flooding. “We still would have had a significant flood event in the Missouri basin,” she said.