Investigation Of Missouri River Flood Management Concludes That Feds Need To Stop Going By The Book

The US Army Corps of Engineers has released the results of an independent investigation of how the Missouri River was managed before, during and after this year’s extraordinary flooding in every state along the river except Montana (full PDF below). I’m told that some in political circles here in North Dakota don’t like the degree to which the report whitewashes the Corp’s actions, and I think they have good reason.

“The flood in 2011 was a record-breaking event with unprecedented levels of runoff that could not be predicted in advance, and the Corps responded well to a difficult test of historic dimensions,” reads the end of the concluding summary on page 89 of the report. I’ve got to say that, while the Corps should be defend against those with 20/20 hindsight, reading that sort of conclusion is a bit galling. Especially given how dismissive the Corps has been of criticism, and calls for changes in how they manage the river.

But there is some common sense buried in the report. From the summary conclusion on page 88 of the report:

The panel found that the decisions of the Corps were appropriate and in line with the appropriate manuals, but both the manuals and the decision-making process can be improved. During extreme flood events, such as in 2011, the Master Manual does not provide a workable formula for operational decisions and during extraordinary flooding experience-based judgment along with repetitive quantitative analysis must be used. Operators must and did consider a great deal of information in their decisions, including the security of the System infrastructure. Earlier releases to provide additional flood storage could have reduced the impact of the flood, but these actions carry the risk that later in the year some authorized purposes would not be satisfied if the flood had not occurred. Without knowledge of the impending precipitation in the late spring, higher releases would have been (and were) called into question.

That’s a long, bureaucratic way of saying that the Corps needs to quit being so hidebound and implement a bit of common sense and flexibility into how they manage the Missouri River.

This is a point I made back in June noting that the Corps follows its Master Control Manual (itself constructed to satisfy the whims of environmental and tourism politics) like a bible, refusing to deviate it even in most of us would consider to be common sense ways. In the early days of 2011, months before the flooding, the Corps was warned by all manner of officials (including state officials here in North Dakota) that the river was heading for problems because the soil was saturated and unlikely to soak up any additional levels of precipitation.

The recommendations made, and revealed subsequent to the flooding by way of a Freedom of Information Act request, was for the Corps to lower reservoir levels. But the Corps refused, because that sort of response wasn’t in the book.

While this report does identify valid criticisms of the Corps, any independent investigation which concludes that the Corps acted appropriately this flooding season clearly hasn’t done its job.

Update: And then there’s this insinuation that the flooding was the result of climate change from page 60 of the report:

The question of whether climate change played a role in the historic flooding along the Missouri River in 2011 is beyond the scope of this report. However, given that more extreme runoff events have occurred in recent decades compared to the data on record, the panel recommends re-examining the Missouri River System planning that is based on the entire historical record dating back to 1898. In addition, the panel recommends studying the possible allowance of greater flexibility in operating the System to adjust for varying climatic conditions.

Presently, the Corps considers all years of runoff on record (through 2006, until updated next year) in its streamflow statistics for determining the upper decile, upper quartile, median, lower quartile, and lower decile numbers for planning in the Annual Operating Plan. However, streamflow data records indicate that extreme events are becoming bigger and more frequent.

Not conclusive, obviously, but watch out for the political types to try and blame this all on your SUV.

USACE Report Missouri River Flooding – Copy

Rob Port

Rob Port is the editor of In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters.

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