Corps of Engineers grilled by ND political leaders
North Dakota’s political leaders have ratcheted up the pressure on the Corps of Engineers by scrutinizing flood-control plans for the rest of the year and requesting more thorough explanations of the water-management decisions that led to the ongoing flood.
U.S. Sens. Kent Conrad (D) and John Hoeven (R) met with Corps of Engineers Brig. Gen. John McMahon today in Washington to, as Conrad described it, “review the Corps’ commitment to preventing a repeat of the flooding that has threatened and destroyed homes and businesses along the Missouri River this year.”
The Corps of Engineers’ strategy for the 2012 flood season is scheduled to be released Friday.
“I don’t envy the job the Corps is undertaking. It is difficult work that they do, and too often it goes underappreciated,” Conrad stated in a media release. “Having said that, I have made it abundantly clear to General McMahon and the entire Corps leadership that the results we’ve seen along the Missouri River this year are unacceptable and must not be permitted to happen again in the future.”
McMahon told the senators the Corps is trying to strike a balance that will allow them to reduce river levels to below flood stage this summer and evacuate enough water from the reservoirs along the river to minimize the flood risk for next year, according to a media statement from Hoeven’s office.
“As they introduce their plan for the 2012 runoff season, the Corps needs to provide good, credible analyses for its decisions and explain clearly how it plans to protect people now and in the future,” Hoeven stated. “After the current season, people along the length of the Missouri River will be looking for reasonable assurance that the Corps is thoroughly thinking through its plan to address similar challenges that may occur in the future.”
Hoeven and Conrad are part of the bipartisan group of federal lawmakers are working to “enhance reservoir capacity and maximize beneficial uses,” according to Hoeven’s office. U.S. Rep. Rick Berg announced last week that he joined congressional working group that will focus on long-term management of the Missouri River and will press the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for information regarding this year’s flood event.
Gov. Jack Dalrymple, a Republican, reportedly met with Corps of Engineers officials in Bismarck this week to seek answers on why the agency failed to release more water from the reservoirs early this spring when it was clear that runoff would be abnormally high. So far, top officials with the Corps of Engineers have argued repeatedly that there was nothing they could have done to prevent flooding this year.
State Rep. Todd Porter, a Republican from Mandan, said he expects elected officials to press much harder for answers now that the flood-recovery effort has begun. Porter was among the first state-level politicians to begin probing Corps of Engineers officials to explain their decisions leading up to the flood.
“Everybody in elected and appointed positions is going to step up at the appropriate time and start asking for more response from the Corps,” Porter said. “The governor has started his process with the other Midwest governors this week, basically saying “We don’t like your answers and want more answers. That timing is really important for all of this.”
For Porter, the right time to challenge the Corps was June 9, a week after Garrison Dam’s spillway opened and a few days after the river reached flood stage in Bismarck-Mandan. His home is within the zone that was threatened by the floodwater.
“I felt, personally, being right in the middle of it, I wanted my answers now and I wanted to fire the first shot across the bow,” he said. “What I was seeing at the press conferences was not acceptable to me.”
Porter was the only state lawmaker to file a formal request under the federal Freedom of Information Act for copies of e-mails, memos and other correspondence relating to the management of the Missouri River reservoir system.
Three newspapers, including the Sioux Falls Argus Leader and the Great Plains Examiner, filed similar requests and were granted access to the documents last week. Other organizations may have filed similar requests in the past week, according to Corps of Engineers attorney Thomas Tracy.
The e-mails showed the Corps of Engineers’ top water officials were warned repeatedly that the reservoir levels were too high going into what was predicted to be an above-normal runoff season. Yet the Corps appears to have brushed off those concerns and instead restricted water releases from the dams during the two months leading up to the flood.