Flooding on the Mighty Mo: Lessons Re-learned

While the recent review by an independent panel (Review of the Regulation of the Missouri River Mainstem Reservoir System During the Flood of 2011) on how the Corps of Engineers handled the flooding along the Mighty Missouri River provides a good overview of the facts, it does not provide much in the way of new information or hard hitting recommendations to the Corps on how they should manage the system differently.

Here are a few highlights of the panels’ findings and recommendations:

  • The Corps operated the system for flood control and not for endangered species or for other environmental purposes as was rumored by some that the Corps had done this and was a reason for the increased flood risk.
  • No forecasts accurately accounted for the extreme runoff volume due to the record rainfall that fell on Montana, North and South Dakotas in May and June.
  • Given the number of extreme events in last few decades, the Corps must base their planning on data from the entire historical record (since 1898) and they must operate the system with much greater flexibility to adapt to climatic extremes – this necessitates improving the Master Manual to provide guidance on how to handle extreme events and more studies to modernize data collection and forecasting.
  • The Corps could have done a better job at communicating the conditions and plans for high releases and communicating the residual risk of dams as many people thought the dams made them safe when they did not.

The panels’ report however is a reminder of a few lessons that we quickly forget after flooding subsides and that we are forced to re-learn after major flooding events.  These lessons include:

  • A river needs room to roam and investing in the protection and restoration of our “natural defenses” our rivers, wetlands, floodplains, upland and coastal areas provide multiple benefits including natural and sustainable flood storage and conveyance;
  • When it comes to managing our water resources, the past should not be the sole guide for the future.  While levees, dams, and other structures will continue to play a role in flood management, they must be the last line of defense, not the only one.  The nation continues to rely on flood “control” structures like dams and levees that can and do fail ultimately making flooding worse, perpetuate a costly flood-damage-repair cycle shouldered by taxpayers, and that  put people in harm’s way many of whom believe they are safe when they are not;
  • We know that flooding is becoming more frequent and more severe and flood losses continue to increase. We must be prepared to address climate extremes and adjust our water management policies as if it is the new norm.  This requires that the nation invests in the modernization of data collection, forecasting,  and flexible planning; and
  • Rivers must be managed as entire systems based on the most scientific and up to date information, not by individual decisions or by individual interests. Unfortunately, in recent years opponents to sound river basin management for the Missouri River who seek to maintain the status quo which favors navigation stripped funding for the Missouri River Authorized Purposes Study or “MRAPS” the very study that would ensure public involvement and bring Missouri River management into the 21st century.

As the Missouri River Basin recovers from the 2011 floods, a priority must be placed on keeping people safe in 2012 while levees are repaired and the area recovers. 

In 2012 we will also look forward to a second awaited report on the Missouri River flooding by the government watchdog agency – the Governmental Accountability Office (GAO) – that came at the formal request of a group of Senators on December 7, 2011. [PDF]

We are hopeful that the GAO report will provide harder hitting recommendations to Congress on how to manage flood risk on the Missouri River in a way that safeguards communities and the rivers they depend upon.