Sometimes it takes a flood to get our priorities straight. That might be true on a lot of levels, but none more so than the need to correct the absurd methods of managing the Missouri River reservoir system.
This year’s flood so far hasn’t caused the catastrophe in Bismarck-Mandan that many people feared it would. Our public servants at every level of government and thousands of volunteers worked tirelessly to make sure that most of our community would be protected. Our situation, from every angle, pales in comparison to the devastation that the Souris River has wreaked on Minot.
Still, the Missouri River flood claimed numerous houses, many more basements and completely disrupted the lives of thousands of people who thought it was safe to live in the floodplain – people who gambled, perhaps mistakenly, on the notion that those in charge of the dams upriver were as concerned about flooding as they were.
Instead, federal water managers appear to have been more focused on following protocols than preventing floods. But it’s equally disturbing that our elected leaders went to such great lengths to please boaters, environmentalists and the energy industry when they drafted the complex rules that the Army Corps of Engineers follows without demur.
We citizens are not blameless, either, as we allowed our whims and our politics to compromise what was once a clear-cut mission to protect people and spur new development in a watershed that spans 10 states and encompasses one-sixth the area of the United States.
Only a few generations ago, the Missouri River was perhaps the most unpredictable and dangerous river in North America. The “Big Muddy” carried heavy sediment loads from its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains to St. Louis, resulting in course changes – banks sometimes shifted a half-mile in a year –that threatened lives and destroyed property.
After a series of violent floods and the “Dust Bowl” drought of the 1930s, the federal government decided to harness the river by constructing a system of reservoirs and dams to promote economic development in the river’s floodplain.
Taming the river was a wildly pretentious plan, but the goals seemed simple and cohesive: The dams would store water to control floods and provide an adequate water supply during dry seasons. Shipping channels would be more reliable. Power would be generated as the river passed through larger dams in the upper basin and successively smaller dams downriver.
In practice, managing the river became far more complex in the 1950s when, even before the dams were finished, a slew of special interests began staking claims to the water. A series of federal laws enacted during the next 60 years relegated flood control to one of eight congressionally authorized purposes of the reservoir system. It got even more complicated when the federal government gave states along the watershed a seat at the negotiating table where new rules are crafted for the Corps of Engineers.
Agricultural and industrial interests were among the first to sink their hooks into Congress by successfully lobbying in 1958 for the inclusion of water supply on the list of reservoir-management priorities. The shipping industry, conservationists and recreationists took turns convincing Congress to pass new water-management legislation during the next 10 years.
The environmentalist movement led to three landmark laws: The National Environmental Policy Act in 1969, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972 and the 1973 Endangered Species Act. All three significantly changed how the Army Corps of Engineers manages the reservoir system.
The Corps wrote the Master Water Control Manual to keep track of the regulations and the specific water-management targets that history and tests had shown would achieve equilibrium. As this year has proven, it literally takes an act of Congress for them to deviate from it.
At this point, it’s unclear whether any one of those non-flood-related priorities had a disproportionate level of influence on the Corps’ decision to keep water releases low during the early spring while massive volumes of runoff were spilling into the reservoirs. But it’s pretty clear that the combination of competing priorities diverted federal water managers’ attention from what many of us assumed was the overarching priority: flood control.
It wouldn’t be wise to ignore all of the other uses for the reservoir system. We should care about the fish and the birds; those are God’s creatures after all, and we were commissioned to be good stewards. We should also enjoy boating on the river whenever possible and remain thankful for all the benefits of a thriving energy industry in North Dakota.
But there is a point at which achieving those goals becomes detrimental to flood control. We witnessed that this year, and it’s time to make some changes.
There are a lot of things to disagree about when it comes to water-management policies, but it’s a safe bet most of us who live in the river’s watershed can agree on one principal: Flood control needs to be reinforced as the predominant priority for the Corps of Engineers’ water managers. Clearly, our elected leaders are going to have to put it in the manual for them.
-Matt Bunk is publisher of the Great Plains Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org