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Without answers from Corps, public blames flood on plovers

By   /   June 9, 2011  /   51 Comments

(Photo by Matt Bunk) Sid Schroeder wades through a backchannel of the Missouri River to get to his brother-in-law's house June 5.

A month ago, Mark Unterseher was fishing off sandbars near his home on the heavily wooded shoreline less than two miles northwest of Bismarck city limits. He says he was doing the same thing in April while the Missouri River was flowing lazily past his neighborhood at a depth of just more than six feet.

Unterseher, 44, said it’s hard not to think about those days now that the river is nearly three times deeper and his home is filling up with water.

“It shouldn’t have been this way,” he said Tuesday while piling sandbags in front of his neighbor’s home. “For most of the spring there were sandbars over the whole damn river.”

The period between late March and early May is something the Army Corps of Engineers has been trying really hard not to talk about. During that 45-day period, the agency’s water managers stored near-record amounts of water in the reservoir behind Garrison Dam while keeping river levels low, despite evidence that there was about 30 percent more snow in the mountains than normal.

Instead of explaining what their strategy was during the months leading up to the flood, top officials with the Corps of Engineers have offered cryptic answers while pointing to their operations manuals.

“We were operating the mainstem reservoirs in compliance with our master manual,” said Jody Farhat, chief of Missouri River basin water management for the Corps of Engineers. When asked to elaborate, she repeated the same line.

Without answers, people who live along the river have done a bit of their own detective work. Many of them suspect the Corps of Engineers was trying to protect the habitat of federally protected birds. Others are convinced spring floods in the lower basin of the Missouri River may have prompted the Corps to hold more water behind the dams farther north.

Corps of Engineers officials denied both of those assertions and insisted that they have been operating in “flood-control mode” at Garrison Dam since the beginning of the year. But public records maintained by the agency tell a different story about the way the dam was managed during the two months prior to the flood.

To gather the information for this report, the Great Plains Examiner spent nearly two weeks comparing sets of data on release rates and storage levels recorded by the Corps of Engineers as far back as 1967 when the dam began operating. Additional research included studying operations manuals that guide the agency’s decisions and interviewing dozens of local leaders, federal officials, biologists and hydrologists from North Dakota and across the U.S.

Daily logs kept by the Corps of Engineers show that the agency began 2011 on an aggressive schedule to draw down the levels at Lake Sakakawea, releasing high amounts of water through the dam in January, February and the beginning of March. The average release of about 25,000 cubic feet per second during the first two-and-a-half months was almost twice as much as the average rate for that time of year.

Instead of continuing that pattern, though, the agency curtailed the releases from March 20 until May 5, allowing the reservoir to rise to about eight feet above average for that time of year while the river ran through Bismarck at its seasonal low point. Prior to slowing the release rate, the Corps had received data showing above-average snowpack in the mountains overlooking the upper river basin.

Everything changed rapidly in mid-May when heavy rain in Montana forced the Corps of Engineers to start draining Lake Sakakawea to avoid overflowing the dam. But each time the agency pushed more water through the dam, the rain came down even harder; statistics for the month show the amount of water that flowed into the reservoir was nearly double the amount that was released into the river.

Farhat said a year’s worth of rain flowed into Lake Sakakawea at the end of May. “The game-changer was the rain,” she said.

In June, the agency opened the Garrison Dam spillway gates for the first time ever as the rate of release ramped up to more than 120,000 cubic feet per second, about twice as much water as the previous record. Within days, floodwaters overtook communities along the river from Montana to Missouri and forced thousands of residents to evacuate their homes. In Burleigh and Morton counties, more than 700 households were given notice to evacuate and thousands of other houses are in jeopardy as the rate of release is expected to reach 150,000 cubic feet per second by mid-June.

Many residents of Bismarck-Mandan have questioned why the Corps of Engineers didn’t release more water earlier in the spring, especially considering there was so much snow in the mountains.

“The river could have handled more water early this spring,” said Brent Hanson, a Bismarck resident who works at a boat dealership and marina next to the river. “They could have raised it more than five feet without causing any flooding here, then maybe we wouldn’t have had to deal with as much water now.”

Unterseher said the Corps of Engineers screwed something up, no matter how a person looks at it.

“It’s hard to blame somebody for this,” he said. “But it has to be mismanagement. This is pathetic.”

Water-management experts said the Corps of Engineers eventually will have to explain why so little water was released in the months leading up to the flood.

“What were they doing in the winter months and early spring when this was building?” asked Larry Larson, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers. “Were they preparing for it, or were they playing the odds and then found themselves caught in a box?”

Farhat said flooding was unavoidable because the amount of rain in May made it impossible to store all the water flowing into Lake Sakakawea. She said higher releases through the Garrison Dam during early spring may have caused ice jams and flooding, similar to what Bismarck-Mandan experienced in 2009. But neither of those statements explains what the Corps of Engineers was doing in April after the ice had receded from the river.

“The main stem reservoir system has been operated in full flood-control mode since the high water of 2010,” she said. “We have not made any operational decisions this year for anything other than flood control.”

Col. Robert Ruch, commander of the Omaha division of the Corps of Engineers, took it one step further, saying “In hindsight, I can’t imagine doing anything differently.”

Despite daily press conferences and several appearances at community meetings, officials with the Corps of Engineers have not explained what, if anything, went wrong other than several unpredictable rainstorms. However, a review of the agency’s master manual for the Missouri River system and its 2011 operating plan shows the agency was directed to follow regulations that encourage water storage in the reservoirs in the upper basin of the Missouri River during early spring for several reasons.

The Corps of Engineers has been instructed to save water in the reservoirs during spring so it can be sold to agricultural and industrial interests year-round; to ensure enough water is available during the summer to keep the river high enough for navigation and recreation; to maintain consistent production of hydropower during all seasons; and to limit releases during spring and summer to protect habitat for federally protected birds.

It’s that last item that really grinds on people like Unterseher.

“The birds had something to do with it,” he said. “That’s what I believe anyway.”

Two bird species, the piping plover and the least tern, migrate to the Missouri River basin during the spring nesting season, which starts in early May. In the past, the Corps of Engineers has taken steps to protect the birds, including dredging parts of the river to create sandbars and cutting down vegetation on existing sandbars to give the birds an unobstructed view of predators.

“As in previous years, releases from Garrison will follow a repetitive daily pattern during the (threatened and endangered birds) nesting season to limit peak stages below the project for nesting birds,” officials noted in the Corps of Engineers’ 2011 operating plan for the Missouri River. “All reasonable measures to minimize the loss of nesting (threatened and endangered) bird species will be used.”

The Corps of Engineers has been falling short of its bird-habitat requirements in recent years and was under pressure from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to create and maintain more acreage of sandbars. Most of the piping plovers and least terns choose nesting grounds south of Gavins Point Dam, but some migrate to the area between Garrison Dam and Lake Oahe.

Ruch, Farhat and other officials with the Corps of Engineers have said repeatedly that the agency at the beginning of the year abandoned all plans to protect the sandbar habitat for piping plovers and the least terns.

“There has been zero water managed for endangered species this year,” Ruch said.

Henry Maddux, geographic supervisor of the Missouri River for U.S. Game and Fish, said the Corps of Engineers notified his office that the conditions this spring made it impossible to protect habitat for endangered and threatened birds. He said that notification was given in late April, just before nesting season.

“There was nothing done for our species this year,” he said. “They didn’t hold water back for us.”

The Corps of Engineers also canceled the two “pulses” planned for March and May that would normally have called for higher, short-term releases from Garrison Dam to create more suitable conditions downstream for the pallid sturgeon. Those operations were canceled because the Corps’ water managers were concerned about worsening the flood conditions in lower-basin states such as Nebraska, where the river had reached flood stage in early April, Maddux said.  

So was the Corps of Engineers keeping water releases low at Garrison during April to prevent more severe flooding in the lower reaches of the Missouri River or even the Mississippi River? The Corps of Engineers, once again, avoided anything resembling a real answer.

“We coordinate our releases with our sister district along the Mississippi River, but we do not make release decisions based on conditions along the Mississippi River,” Farhat said.

The public isn’t alone in its frustration with the Corps of Engineers’ water-management techniques. On Tuesday, U.S. Sen. John Hoeven joined several other elected officials in states along the Missouri River to call for a thorough after-action review of this year’s event, including a review of the master manual, the Corps’ principal guide to managing river operations.

“Taking a hard look at this year’s flooding and the Corps’ response to it could help us improve our mitigation efforts in the future,” Hoeven stated. “That has to be part of our larger response to this flood.”

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  1. maverick says:

    I am very glad that Senator Hoeven has started to ask questions, and hope that he asks some really hard questions of the Corps of Engineers. They have been feeding the State a line for way to many years. Lord knows that Berg won’t do anything.

  2. Jean says:

    Thanks for a well-researched and timely story. I hope more transparency on the part of the Corp and any others who played a significant role in this story will indeed lead to improved management of the river. Kudos to the Great Plains Examiner!

  3. Jarv says:

    Excellent story!! We need this kind of reporting in this area.

  4. ted says:

    Great journalism. Thanks.

  5. Charlie says:

    I am glad to see someone is asking the hard questions and doing some additional research. Communities up and down the Mighty Missouri have a lot of unanswered questions right now. I hope for the Army Corp of Engineers sake, we do not find out they were protecting endangered birds and fish, when we should have been protecting endangered homes up and down the Missouri River. The fact of the matter is, there is plenty of blame to go around and some of the blame is rightfully justified!!

  6. Andi says:

    Well, so far you’re living up to your claims, Great Plains Examiner. This is a story I’ve been waiting to read from someone in the Bismarck media, and you produced it. Thank you for a well researched, timely article addressing one of the biggest issues and topics of conversation in town right now. I look forward to continued coverage of these issues.

  7. Greg G says:

    I suppose that the corps primary failing is their inability to see record breaking rainfall months in advance. Lets hold everyone accountable for failures of precognition! Fines or prison sentences?

    • Claudia says:

      No Greg, the Corps primary failing is the inability to do their job right….what happened in March and April…BEFORE the rains??? Hhhmmmm???

      • Tom says:

        The Corps not doing their job right? How long has the damn been in operation and how many floods have occured in that time period. The article states that dam started operating in 1967 but in real-life, it started operating in 1954 when it was finished. I think the COE has done a very good job in flood control since before the dam was built, south Bismarck was part of the Missouri River every spring. My dad used to fish where the Civic Center is now.

        • Matt Bunk says:

          From what the Corps’ records indicate, the dam wasn’t fully operational until 1967, which is when they first began tracking pool and release data for comparison purposes. A Corps’ official confirmed that was the case.

          • Tom says:

            It may have not been “FULLY” operational but it was doing what it was meant to do the second they dumped the last load of dirt on it in 1954. I believe the power plant is what became operational in 1967.

          • Matt Bunk says:

            That’s probably true, Tom, but the data on record with the Corps of Engineers goes back to only 1967. So that’s the only comparative data that was available.

  8. Ryan S. says:

    Great story – you are my new local news publisher!!

  9. jamie says:

    how soon we forget. 2 months ago levees were purposely breeched to save major southern missouri river cities from flooding. It’s pretty hard to imagine a greater outflow on our portion of the missouri if it is going to increase flooding in cities with a much larger population further south. Birds had nothing to do with this. Extreme amounts of moisture if a short time span was the culprit. Next time include all of the data concerning the actual circumstances that led us to here instead of trying to prey on already raw emotions.
    BTW I am happy that another newspaper is trying to get a foothold in the community.

    • Matt Bunk says:

      Jamie: You make a very good point, but I want to clear up that I am not trying to prey on raw emotions. I asked the Corps if the flooding in the upper basin was a result of storing water early in the spring to save the lower basin communities, which were flooding in early April (which I did point out in the story). But the Corps has refused to say that’s what they were doing. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that holding water upriver didn’t save those cities to the south from flooding – many of them are still facing flood danger now, along with additional cities upriver.

      • jamie says:

        Matt I agree that you asked those questions but you also make sure that your headline and tone of the story is about endangered species. You did a great job of getting local people to vent their frustration with the corps. I happen to disagree with the tone of the article. I didn’t think I was attacking you and apologize if that was the impression.

        • Matt Bunk says:

          No apology necessary. It’s just a discussion of the issues. I’m actually really glad you commented. Keep it up.

  10. Tami says:

    What the Corp is failing to focus on is that there doesn’t seem to have been a plan for the unbelievable snowfall accumulation over the season in Montana. We were out in Montana twice and it did not stop snowing the entire time. So since November the precipitation there has been much higher than usual it doesn’t take precognition to recognize that this pattern could have occurred into the spring as well and to have better planned not only for the run off but for the rain that was likely to come as well. This should have been considered way back in November when it all started as January wasn’t early enough and the safe plan would have been to plan for the rain that was likely coming. Now homeowners are losing homes they have worked their entire lives to build, families have been uprooted, and there has been little help available for answering questions or providing services for families. I am in a camper with three children and when I have asked what kind of assistance is coming for displaced families I have been told by emergency management that this is still the response phase assistance comes in the recovery phase. Needless to say, that is not helpful to families that right now are in survival phase!

  11. DAVE says:

    Hello, flood zone people, build somewhere else.

  12. Tom says:

    Yep, let’s blame the COE on the record rainfall in Montana. Better yet, let’s blame George Bush for it. I have sympathy and compassion for the people that are being flooded but the COE has done a pretty good job of flood control for over 50 years. Let’s place the blame where it belongs…Mother Nature. Before the record rainfall, there was storage room in the reservoirs for the mountain snow melt.

  13. Celia says:

    Wow, this article smacks of real journalism. It’s a nice change for this area. Thanks for the story!

  14. [...] day before the Legislature sent the letter, the Great Plains Examiner published a story that showed the Corps of Engineers had been unwilling to explain why water managers withheld [...]

  15. Tom says:

    The only ones who hold any blame for the houses lost to the flood, are those who built or bought homes which are basically located in the river. They should accept the responsiblity for thier choices instead of pointing fingers at someone else.

    • john says:

      I agree with Tom, I you look north of bismarck on the west side of the river many of the houses are 20 to 30 feet higher than the river level in a normal season. If you build a large house thats only five to ten feet abouve the river you are asking for trouble. They are totally to blame for their own stupidity.

      • no where near the river says:

        Hello…I live over 10 miles from the river, not directly in any flood plain on any map and within the next week I am losing my house to this flood. Before we call anymore people ‘stupid’ check a map and pray for us that do not have the luxury of building a river front vacation home….there is no reason I should be going through this or my neighbors. Think of all the farm ground that is going under – where is your next meal coming from?? This effects alot of people that have nothing to do with the river on a normal basis. All of our creeks are backing up and causing yet another issue.

  16. Kurt W. Webber says:


    In August 2006 Gov. Hoeven met with the Corps of Engineers at Garrison concerning the low level of the reservoir (1815). The fisherman and other recreationalist were angry because of the low water levels in Sakakawea. The question that needs to be answered is if the reservior was at 1815 on March 2011, would there have been enough storage to accomodate the high runoff from Montana and Wyoming we are now experiencing? The way I read the Corps data you posted, the amount not release last fall for Piping Plovers would have made little difference.

    • Matt Bunk says:

      This spring, Lake Sakakawea was 15 feet below the storage limit of Garrison. If Lake Sakakawea was at the level you mentioned, the reservoir would have been able to rise 40 feet higher without forcing water downriver. I’m not sure if that would have completely saved Bismarck-Mandan from flooding, but it would have given the Corps far more flexibility to manage the releases without going to 150,000 cubic feet per second. The other thing to keep in mind is that it’s not just Garrison that we’re dealing with here; several other dams/reservoirs were in a similar situation as Garrison/Sakakawea (holding a lot of water this spring). Keeping them all at high levels limited the flexibility of the system as a whole. So the answer is I don’t know if it would have eliminated all flood danger, but there’s no doubt that having 25 more feet of storage space at Sakakawea would have limited the severity of the flood.
      Lastly, the Corps is required to limit the flows from the dam to help the plovers during the spring and early summer months while they are nesting along the river. By fall, most plovers migrate away from the upper reaches of the river.

  17. Mike says:

    I agree with the others, its about time we have a news source that does ask questions and doesn’t fluff everything. The local media seems to be scared to challenge the local government on issues. I will be reading my local news on this website. No more bismarcktribune!

  18. Travis J says:

    I enjoyed the article and my best wishes go out to this paper it is time we get and honest report besides a bunch of smoke being blown by other local news sources.

  19. Tom says:

    Instead of looking to find blame somewhere about the flooding, why not send your investigative reporters to find out why we’re being gouged at the gas pump? The Tribune doesn’t seem to want to do this.

  20. Kurt W. Webber says:

    Matt: The point I was attempting to make in my first posting above was the pressure ND placed on the Corps to hold the reservoir at a higher level (my reference to the 2006 Garrison meeting when the reservoir was at 1815).

    At http://www.nwd-mr.usace.army.mil/rcc/reports/pdfs/MissouriRiverFlooding6Jun2011.pdf there is a diagram that shows the base of the annual flood control zone for Garrison Reservoir as 1837.7. Now look at the Statistics chart for Years 1967 to 2010 and note the elevation for March of 2011 was 1837.7. The Corps did met there management target.

    At the above website note the May rainfall map. My understanding it was the above average rainfall that filled the flood control zone. If you want to do some investigating, research how the 1837.7 base for the flood control zone was established and what input our ND leadership had in establishing that elevation.

    • Matt Bunk says:

      Thanks, Kurt. Your point is well-taken and I’ve seen those statistics. The March levels of the reservoir weren’t the point of contention, though. It’s more about the fact that by May 5, the reservoir had risen to 1848 feet, about 10 feet above the base flood control zone and, actually, closer to the record high than the average for that time of year. The lingering rainstorms in Montana came later, forcing these record releases. So the most pressing question so far, for me at least, is why releases were so low from late March until early May. Stay tuned, though, because I am definitely with you on reporting why the levels must be maintained so high.

  21. cmberg says:

    Matt, GREAT job on your articles! I look forward to meeting you this week, and keep up the GREAT work!

  22. Pipingplovers are worthless says:

    those birds are annoying and are probably extinct now.. so we wont have to worry about them anymore

  23. [...] period between March 20 and May 6 is likely to get the most attention in what the military calls an “after-action review.” During [...]

  24. [...] investigation by the Great Plains Examiner revealed troubling information: Corps of Engineers officials denied both of those assertions and [...]

  25. zztop says:

    The corps kept the lake high for agricultural and industrial reasons. Does that mean that the kept the lake high for the oil industry in the western part of the state for fracking purposes. Maybe the birds had nothing to do with it.

  26. Jean says:

    John McMahon of the Corps in a Guest Op-Ed to the Great Plains Examiner published the following day, says that at no time in the past year has the river been managed for endangered species.

    I too would be VERY interested to see how the 1837.7 figure was arrived at, and suspect it has more to do with political pressure to salvage our upstream recreation and downstream navigation interests than saving any bird. Be careful what you ask for, eh?


  27. [...] of you read the story. Dozens of you commented on [...]

  28. [...] not the top priority of the network of dams constructed by taxpayers?Near Missouri Valley, IowaMatt Bunk of the Great Plains Examiner first wrote June 9 about the growing suspicion of hard-hit residents of Bismarck, North Dakota is [...]

  29. Drew says:

    Matt: great article. an important not to be overlooked takeaway “The COE has been instructed to save water in the reservoirs during spring so it can be sold to agricultural and industrial interests year-round”. In February 2011 Sando challenged the constitutionality of the COE new practice (2010) of charging for use of Lake Sakakawea water. Seems like a conflict of interest and could have an effect of higher water levels. Your thoughts?

  30. [...] reporter also did an earlier story in which he analyzed releases from Garrison Dam, rather than just reporting he said-she said accounts. He found that the U.S. Corps of Engineers [...]

  31. Zico says:

    I work for the Corps in Threatened and Endangered Species… And we do what we can for the birds, but we don’t even sacrifice a whole parking lot for them, let alone dangerously alter water releases.

  32. Paul Schepers says:

    I’m from northern Missouri and have been asking the same questions Mr. Bunk addresses in this article. There hasn’t been a single thing reported in our local print or broadcast media outlets on the reasons why the corp waited so long to begin releasing water from these reservoirs along the upper Missouri River basin at the current rates. I had to search the internet to find this article and am very grateful for the work Mr. Bunk did on this article. Well done. I am still wondering how long it took for the Corp to react to the record rains in May. The article states that the Garrison dam spillway was opened “in June”. When “in June” and would an earlier release have made a difference?

  33. Karbine98 says:

    I’m an anesthetist in Omaha and live near Crescent, Iowa. THE FLOOD has really made life difficult for this family. Now I get to spend call nights in house since detour makes drive way too long for emergencies. Bureacracies are smoothering the very life out of this once great nation. I shun conspiracy theories, but seems this is just more of the lethargic incompetence of BIG GOVERNMENT and as usual no one will be held responsible. Barney Frank and Cris Dodd malfeasance almost destroyed the housing industry of this nation and not even a slap on the hand (or on butt in case of Barney). Sometimes even paranoics have real enemies and I think this country/society has alot of people who champion the notion of de-development of the country. The common folk have no right to luxuries such as air conditioning, personal vehicles, acerages, etc. It isn’t just the extreme enviro-leftists now who spout this garbage about how the US is raping mother-goddess earth-gaia. More and more “mainstream” enviros want us to slide backwards into
    a much starker, “simpler” life–assuming they get to lord over us for our own good and live in the lap of comfort–like the hollywood hypocrites with carbon footprints that dwarf some entire communities. From one end of this country to the other, there have been so many stories in the last ~35-40 years of various gov’t agencies destroying private citizens lives and livelihoods for inane and capricious goals. I was always a very obedient type, supportive of authority, but I and many of my cohorts, colleagues, and other subjects are becoming very, very disgusted with BIG BROTHER choking the life out of us and our grand-kids futures. GOD SAVE AND HEAL OUR LAND, Greg

  34. [...] though the Army Corp says they were merely following the Master Plan, others disagree. Two bird species, the piping plover and the least tern, migrate to the Missouri River basin [...]

  35. Dave Kwikkel says:

    I also run a Marina like the gentleman from Bismarck in Decatur Nebraska. My brother was told at a spring meeting by the COE that there was ten cubic miles of water stored in the resevoirs going into spring. In middle March we did some work along the river and feed our ducks on sandbars that had formed to the entrance to the marina. We commented how we might have to dredge with the drag-line to start the boating season. The water level was so low in the river in mid-march, ten cubic miles were already in storage, and 140% snow pack in the mountains. Maybe just maybe some pressure relief on the the swollen reservoirs should have been taking place earlier this spring. In 2004-2005 the water level was so low we had to push boats out of the marina. My guess is they were trying to save water to avoid the lean years and they got burnt bad! South Dakota and their politics for recreation and tourism starved Iowa and Nebraska mid decade and now we are getting burnt again because they have too much. That manual has politics written all over it.

  36. Lucy B says:

    It might help to take into account the bigger picture. That protected agricultural land is fertile because of the floods that carried nutrients to the soil. Flood plains flood. If not last year, sometime in the past. It happens and it will happen again. Someday. No matter how straight those creeks going through Northwest Missouri were made, the chance that nature will re-claim or at least re-arrange back to the natural flow is excellent.
    I suspect it may be a water distribution plan that only the earth elements know about! We have piped water from various sources to assuage the big cities’ thirst for years. Might be a way to rearrange the waters of the earth.
    The USA is not the only place experience major flooding. Could it be a balancing act for the earth and people really don’t have a lot of say? Nature will probably win in the end.

  37. Enid says:

    On the first sentence it seems to look like it were valid but if you compare it i cant see the sense of this..

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