The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must pay more attention to flood control, update its data-gathering technology and procedures, and improve its collaboration and communication efforts. However, it first must repair damaged Missouri River levees before this spring’s flood season starts.
While some of those recommendations were made by an independent review panel that studied the Corps' actions during last summer’s record floods, others came from Midwesterners whose homes were destroyed after the structures sat in floodwaters for more than three months.
Governors of seven of the eight Missouri Basin states have stated that flood control must be the highest priority for the Corps, noted Brian Dunnigan, director of the Nebraska Dept. of Natural Resources.
Furthermore, flood control can take priority without revising the Corps’ master manual if Corps officials are allowed flexibility to make decisions, as they did last summer, Dunnigan said. The master manual details procedures for operating the 2,341-mile-long Missouri River system and the six dams that serve its eight purposes: flood control, irrigation, navigation, hydroelectric power generation, water supply, water quality, recreation, and fish and wildlife enhancement.
Comprising a civil engineer and three hydrologists, the review panel found that the Corps “made decisions that were appropriate and … in line with the appropriate manuals,” Neil Grigg, professor of civil engineering at Colorado State University and a member of the panel, said during a news conference after the report was issued on Dec. 20.
However, Grigg added, there is room for improvement in the manuals, forecasting, data-gathering and decision-making processes.
“Data is an issue,” Dunnigan said. “[The manuals] should always be using the best data.” If there are not enough sites to measure snow-melt or precipitation runoff for adequate forecasts, it’s time to add more, he said.
“The master manual was created three or four decades ago,” said John Benson, public information officer at the Iowa Dept. of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. “Circumstances have changed, so they ought to look at it again” with an eye to operational strengths and weaknesses, he said.
The manual was last updated in 2006, an effort that took 14 years and several court fights and cost $33 million, Corps Brig. Gen. John McMahan said during the news conference. “Communication is always paramount” when disasters strike, Benson said, and social media are a useful addition to the communication mix, especially when rumors start.
“If you know a rumor is out there, you can track it down. It gives you a chance to put out correct information. That’s something we’ve not had in the past,” McMahan said.
Clear and immediate information is important to people like Lisa and Ken Delp, who moved out of their house in Niobrara, Neb., on May 26 with only 48 hours notice. They are still living in rental housing. “I’ve lost a lot of trust of people in government, especially in the Corps,” Lisa Delp said. “When [the flood] first happened, they held a meeting and told us how much water they would release and how high it would get, and the next day they changed it.”
Like most other houses in the Lazy River Acres community, the Delp's house had to be demolished. The Delps moved to Yankton, S.D., to be near Ken's job after flooding made a bridge inaccessible; Lisa drives 96 miles daily to her job in Nebraska.
The Delps won’t return to the riverside area because Lisa fears a repeat. “I don’t ever what to go through this again,” she said. They had flood insurance and on Dec. 29 learned they might get a payout in the next few weeks.
Flood control should be the top priority for the Corps, Lisa Delp said.
Charlie Zanker—a Hamburg, Iowa, farmer who lost his house, farm buildings and 2,000 acres of corn and soybeans to the flood—agrees with the panel’s recommendation that the Corps look at recent rainfall trends and adjust water management plans.
He is a member of Responsible River Management, a recently formed group of individuals, businesses and cities that is meeting with state and federal officials.
“The Corps has agreed to meet with us on a monthly basis”—a sign of improved communication with people on the river— Zanker said. “I think the Corps realized [its] image, which wasn’t fantastic pre-flood, got tarnished even worse.”
After the levees are repaired, the group is calling for a study of the wildlife management practices that could contribute to breaches. “We want to know what’s going on in every mile of that river and hold them accountable,” Zanker said.
Richard R. Oswald, president of the Missouri Farmers Union, is another advocate of reviewing recent weather trends for water management plans. His land was flooded for more than 100 days, and he lost 1,400 acres of crops. Though all the houses nearby were flooded and had to be demolished, Oswald's house stands about eight inches above the floodplain. He has returned to it.
The issue of floodplain development “is a local issue and an issue for FEMA and the flood insurance program, not the Corps,” Grigg said.
The Corps’ mission is to keep people out of harm’s way, not rely on “structural solutions” such as building dams to control all floods, Grigg said. “One of the things we noted is [that] people in the basin need to understand better the risk and the fact that it is a shared risk,” he said. “We were surprised as we talked to residents that they were not more aware of the risk they were taking by being in the floodplain.”
Most residents had not bought flood insurance and were looking to buy it ahead of the flood, Grigg said.
Since 2008, the Missouri River has presented what Oswald called “a series of challenges." He said, “I’ve seen and my neighbors have seen, when you get into a string of wet years, managing like you do during dry years is not effective.”
With last winter’s record snowfall and the high chance of a rain event, “you can’t manage that amount of water on that little storage capacity,” Oswald said. “You can’t manage the levee system without managing the lake system.”
The panel recommended reviewing water storage and how it is allocated, Darwin Ockerman, panel member and hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, told the news conference.
“In light of this event, probabilities have to be reexamined,” Ockerman said. "They are going to have to make a decision on how much risk you’re willing to live with and how much storage you are going to allocate for flood control. The more you allocate to flood control, the less storage is available for other authorized purposes.”
The current Corps plan makes available 16.8 million acre-feet of storage—up from the 16.3 MAF storage designed in the system—in time for the 2012 runoff season, McMahan told the news conference.
That situation could change, McMahan cautioned, but it is monitored daily. If more storage is needed, that decision will be made at the end of March, he said.