“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “Nothing even close.”
Eight years out of a decade, 1,440-foot-wide floodgates spill not so much as a bucket of the brown water into the Missouri River.
Now, with the Missouri flooding at record levels over the past two months, enough is barreling out of Lewis and Clark Lake to cover a football field 31⁄
2 feet deep every second. Water will race through the dam at that record rate, ultimately
swamping farms and towns for hundreds of miles downstream, through August.
“When your bathtub is full, you just can’t put any more water in it,” said Dave Becker, the operations manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Gavins Point. “Water is going to spill over.”
But how did the bathtub get so full? Why did the six huge Missouri River reservoirs — including Gavins Point, the farthest downstream — fill to the brim and force the months-long release of floodwater?
The short answer: The Corps could have prevented or drastically held down
flooding by opening floodgates sooner. The reasons it didn’t — reasons putting government water managers on the spot this summer — rest in a tangle of history, physics, meteorology and politics.
There was ample warning last winter that snow was piling on the Rockies.
The Corps made room in its man-made lakes for the coming runoff. Just not enough.
Its engineers point out that the Corps was unaware of the torrents of rain that would deluge the Missouri basin in May. As the river now rises in downtown Kansas City, Mo., and floods soybean fields and hamlets to the north, the Corps insists it could not have predicted those storms.
The sparsely populated Dakotas want to keep the reservoirs close to full to draw boaters and sports fishermen, and to irrigate the lower reaches of their river valleys.
Downstream, farming interests want enough water to keep the Missouri River barge industry — a steadily shrinking business — alive.
All that means storing water in the reservoirs in the spring, not leaving empty space to protect against flooding.
“There’s a natural tension there,” said Brig.
Gen. John McMahon, who commands the Corps division that manages the Missouri.
The Corps appears to distrust long-range precipitation forecasts, placing much more confidence in history. Its river flood plan relies in large measure on an 1881 Missouri River flood, and each year includes five runoff and release models based on weather statistics back to the 19th century.
“The Corps . . . isn’t very dynamic,” said Diane Oerly, president of Missouri-based Friends of Big Muddy. “And they’re trying to deal with a dynamic being — the river. If all you do is look to the past to define reality, you can’t be too accurate.” Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has called for a federal investigation of the Corps’ decisions. Missouri state Sen. Brad Lager, a Republican who represents hundreds of flooded-out constituents, said the Corps’ decisions border on the criminal because it failed to respond adequately to growing snowpack.
“Someone who does this for a living knew this was going to be a problem,” Lager said.
McMahon said the criticism was misplaced.
David Pope, the executive director of the Missouri River Association of States and Tribes, said that after this year the Corps could gain flexibility to make flood protection more of a priority.
But doing so would risk the outrage of barge operators or municipal water systems left high and too dry at the end of a summer, Pope said. Had this year’s rains not been so heavy and had the Corps let out more water, upstream states likely would have sued for the damage done to their fishing guides and roadside motels.
For its part, the Corps promises to take another hard look at its prediction models.