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.”