In early May, Mark Unterseher was fishing off sandbars near his home on the heavily wooded shoreline two miles northwest of Bismarck. He was doing the same thing in April while the Missouri River was flowing lethargically 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 more than three times deeper and his house has filled with water.
“It shouldn’t have been this way,” he said while piling sandbags in front of his neighbor’s house. “For most of the spring there were sandbars over the whole damn river.”
The period between March 20 and May 6 has been difficult for the Army Corps of Engineers to explain. During that span, the Corps’ water managers kept river levels low and stockpiled near-record amounts of water behind the three upper basin dams on the Missouri River, despite evidence that the Rocky Mountains were holding a lot more snow than normal.
The reservoirs were so full by early May that they couldn’t contain the late-spring rainfall that pounded Montana and the Dakotas.
Public records studied by the Great Plains Examiner show Fort Peck, Garrison and Oahe dams each were holding more than 99 percent of their total water capacity in late April. Lake Sakakawea, the largest reservoir along the river, had risen 10 feet into the flood-control zone before the Corps of Engineers began ramping up release rates from Garrison Dam to create storage space for the heavy rain and melting snow.
Emergency releases from the reservoirs in June flooded communities along a 1,700-mile stretch of the Missouri River. Almost immediately, people who live in the watershed accused federal water managers of mismanagement, officials with the Corps of Engineers pointed at their operations manuals and elected officials cast a wide net of suspicion over the two-month period leading up to the flood.
Politicians from five states affected by the flood immediately called for a review of the Corps of Engineers’ water-management plans. A few of them promised to introduce legislation to reinforce flood control as the top priority for the Corps’ water managers. Others said they simply want to know what went wrong.
“First and foremost, the Corps needs to focus on the ongoing effort to monitor and enhance flood-protection measures in communities along the Missouri, but then the focus needs to shift to determining how we got here and how we prevent a similar occurrence in the future,” said U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, a Republican from North Dakota.
Barraged with criticism, the Corps of Engineers insisted they did everything correctly.
The Corps’ top officials said they operated in “flood-control mode” all year and were caught unprepared by a year’s worth of rain within a few weeks in May. They said the problem wasn’t how they managed the reservoirs; instead, they blamed a set of conflicting congressional mandates and pressure from political leaders up and down the river system to manage the water for special interests including recreational boaters, environmentalists and the energy industry.
The Master Manual
Jody Farhat, the chief water manager for the Missouri River reservoir system, said she was bound by federal regulations to make sure water-storage levels were high enough during the spring to supply a range of needs year-round. After all, she said, flood control is only one of many functions of the six dams that were built between the 1930s and the 1960s to capture excess water at points along the river from Montana to Nebraska.
“If we were only managing for flood control it would be easy. We would just drain the reservoirs,” Farhat said. “But there are many interests that want us to hold water for all the things the water supplies … and Congress doesn’t give us a bye on any of them. Regardless of whether it’s a high-water year or low-water year, we are supposed to provide water for all of the authorized purposes.”
The way Farhat explains it, the flood that has displaced thousands of homeowners along the river this year was the result of a wild rainy season and strict requirements to do things by the book. The 432-page Master Manual that guides the Corps of Engineers’ water-management decisions outlines specific targets for flood control, but it also requires the Corps to comply with seven additional congressional requirements that constrict flood-control efforts.
The manual, last revised in 2006, was intended to help the Corps of Engineers meet targets for flood control, navigation, water supply, water quality, hydropower, irrigation, recreation and fish and wildlife. During the past 30 years, the manual has been rewritten several times to put more emphasis on the protection of endangered species and to ensure adequate water supply for users such as farmers and oil companies.
The problem was the manual didn’t account for the possibility of record-shattering amounts of rain in May. It also didn’t account for estimates that showed higher-than-average snowpack in the mountains to the northwest. So, neither did the Corps of Engineers’ water managers – until it was too late.
“We reached right where we needed to be,” Farhat said, referring to the 1,838 feet of water in Lake Sakakawea on March 1. “The way the manual is written that’s always the target. It’s not like we have a target here or there depending on wet or dry years.”
“We are getting questions like, ‘You saw the snow, so why didn’t you release more?’” she added. “In the manual it doesn’t make a difference.”
Yet the combination of high reservoir levels, massive amounts of late-spring rain and 40 percent more snow in the mountains than normal caused the Missouri River’s most destructive flood in decades. Thousands of families have evacuated their homes, and hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to contain the flood.
North Dakota Reacts
Bismarck and Mandan were hit particularly hard by the Missouri River flood. More than 850 homes were evacuated, roads were shut down and business owners closed their doors and moved their inventory to higher ground. Several homes were destroyed, and thousands more remain in jeopardy as groundwater pushes upward against their foundations and the river eats away at its banks.
Residents of central North Dakota have been fuming over how much water the Corps of Engineers stockpiled in the reservoirs and was forced to release.
“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.”
The Corps of Engineers has authority to adjust water-management plans in favor of flood control if necessary, even though the Corps’ operational manuals were written to achieve several other objectives. Overall balance is ideal, but not always required, according to Chapter 7 of the Master Manual.
“There are times, however, when the service provided to other purposes must be modified in the interest of the flood-control objective,” the manual states.
When flood conditions arise, the three upper-basin reservoirs act as the the primary storage units because they have the greatest storage capacity and their locations upriver provide the most flexibility to manage floods in the system as a whole.
But when asked repeatedly whether early spring floods downriver caused more water to be held at Fort Peck, Garrison and Oahe dams, the Corps of Engineers said no. Farhat also said concerns about flooding along the Mississippi River had no bearing on water releases into the Missouri River.
“We do not make release decisions based on conditions along the Mississippi River,” she said.
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?”
Local officials have been careful to avoid blaming the Corps of Engineers in public, urging the public to do the same. But that doesn’t mean they’re satisfied with the way the things were handled during the weeks prior to the flood.
“Now is the time to work together. Let’s figure this out, and let’s get through it,” Mandan Mayor Tim Helbling said during a community flood meeting May 24. “Then after this is done we’ll all get together and figure out who to blame. I think everybody is just as angry as the people calling in.”
The Flood Chronology
Daily logs kept by the Corps of Engineers show that water managers 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 rate of about 25,000 cubic feet per second during the first two-and-a-half months was almost twice as much as average for that time of year.
Farhat said ice had receded from the river by March 24 or sooner, which was a signal that it could hold more water.
But instead of pushing more water through Garrison Dam to keep up with high inflows, the Corps of Engineers reduced the release rates. The rate of release from the dam during the next 45 days was lowered to an average of about 16,000 cubic feet per second. During that time, water flowed into Lake Sakakawea at an average of 60,000 cubic feet per second and raised the reservoir levels by about 10 feet.
Farhat said representatives of the 10 states in the Missouri River watershed had asked the Corps to hold excess water in the reservoirs this spring. She said North Dakota water officials told her in April to store water in case of drought. In years past, during times of drought, North Dakota politicians, including Hoeven, have requested higher storage levels at Lake Sakakawea.
“Folks in North Dakota like the water levels high because draught could be coming,” Farhat said. “They like to make sure we have enough water in there and really want us to use the manual as the guiding document and not release more water than it tells us to.”
By the end of April, Lake Sakakawea had risen to near-record levels and the Corps of Engineers realized for the first time that the mountains were holding about 40 percent more snow than average. Until then, the Corps was expecting about 10 percent more snow than normal, Farhat said.
“By May 1, we were going ‘Holy smokes, this is not just a little-above-normal water year. It’s way above normal,’” she said.
At that point, it appears the Corps of Engineers shifted gears by downgrading each of the water-management priorities that conflicted with flood control, notifying the Fish and Wildlife Service that plans to accommodate the habitat of federally protected piping plovers and least terns had to be called off, according to interviews with officials from both agencies.
Both bird species use bare sandbars along the Missouri River during their nesting season from May until August, and the Corps of Engineers had been instructed to keep water releases low prior to and during that period to create more sandbar acreage. Protecting the habitat was outlined as a priority in the 2011 operating plan for the Missouri River.
Henry Maddux, geographic supervisor of the Missouri River for the U.S. Game and Fish Department, 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 just before nesting season.
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, Maddux said.
“There was nothing done for our species this year,” he said. “They didn’t hold water back for us.”
The Corps of Engineers waited until May 6 to increase the rate of releases from Garrison Dam, even though inflows into Lake Sakakawea had begun a rapid climb in late March. But the release rates climbed slowly for the next 10 days and were consistently outpaced by inflows into Lake Sakakawea.
In mid-May, the Corps of Engineers coordinated a series of conference calls with state and local officials in North Dakota to warn them that more water would be released from the dam to free up space in the reservoir for the snow runoff, Farhat said. During the first call on May 16, the Corps of Engineers predicted releases from the dam would reach a peak of 50,000 cubic feet per second.
But it just kept raining in Montana, forcing the Yellowstone River to flow harder and faster into the Missouri River than it had since the Great Flood of 1881. By May 20, Lake Sakakawea had risen to within five feet of the all-time record set during the 1975 flood and the Corps of Engineers had told North Dakota officials to prepare for near-record releases from Garrison dam of about 60,000 cubic feet per second.
“Then that’s the week we got 10 inches of rain in Montana, so all bets were off,” Farhat said.
Estimates of peak release rates changed rapidly after that, from 70,000 cubic feet per second on May 23 to 150,000 cubic feet per second on May 28. Part of the reason for the wide swing, Farhat said, was that the Corps of Engineers on May 25 first began studying the combined effects of the lingering rainstorms and the runoff from snowmelt.
When the Corps raised the release estimates to 80,000 cubic feet per second on May 24, “we were just trying to get past the rainfall event,” Farhat said. “But the next day we re-ran our models to figure out what we were going to do with that snowmelt. And because of that one rain event it filled our reservoirs to almost the top, and we didn’t have the flexibility to store that runoff from snowmelt. We needed a bigger drain.”
On June 1, Garrison Dam’s spillway gates opened for the first time, dumping about twice as much water into the Missouri River than at any point since the dam became fully operational in 1967. Within days, the river rose three feet above flood stage and overtook communities along the river from North Dakota to Missouri.
Even now, though, Corps of Engineers officials insist there was nothing they could have done to prevent the flood. They said this year’s circumstances were the result of “the perfect storm.”
“In hindsight, I can’t imagine doing anything differently,” said Col. Robert Ruch, commander of the Omaha division of the Corps of Engineers.
Nonetheless, lawmakers said they want to examine what was going on behind the scenes during early spring. For some, like state Rep. Todd Porter of Mandan, the Corps of Engineers’ assurances have fallen on skeptical ears.
“Why did the United States Army Corps of Engineers stop releasing water at an increased rate around the middle of March and not increase releases from the Garrison Dam until May 6, especially given the fact that the reservoir was full and the snowpack was at least 140 percent of normal?” Porter wrote in a letter to Ruch on June 9, just hours after the Great Plains Examiner first published the results of its public records research.
“Please provide any records regarding the decision to delay Garrison Dam releases and any internal memos/emails discussing the decisions,” he noted.
The Corps of Engineers, being part of the Army, is getting ready for what the military calls an “after-action review.” Farhat said she hopes it will reveal “what we could have done differently.”
“I wish I could have gone up on releases sooner, and I wish I wouldn’t have to go as high. But I think we made the right choice given all of the authorized purposes,” she said. “If this flood event changes the nation’s view of how the reservoirs need to be managed – more for flood control – the only way to do that is provide less service to all those authorized purposes.”
For Unterseher and his neighbors, it’s too late. Unterseher said the flood has caused about $300,000 damage to his $650,000 home. He doesn’t have flood insurance.
“Do you think we can sue the Corps?” he asked. “They’re the ones who caused this. This is a man-made flood.”