Environment or Army Corps of Engineers: The Floods of 2019

As usual, people are not waiting for the disaster to finish happening before blaming someone for it. In this case, it is the h-ll and high water swamping the Missouri River watershed. Some have pointed at anthropogenic climate change and are saying that humanity (OK, the free market system and fossil fuels) are to blame. Others suggest that the Army Corps of Engineers is at fault.

I don’t believe the climate change argument, at least the human-caused aspect, because if you look at the terrible floods of the 1920s on the Mississippi and Missouri River watersheds, we were still in the tail end of the effects of the Little Ice Age in terms of temperatures and precipitation patterns.

Heavy snow-pack and a series of relatively warm storms that dumped rain onto snow-covered, still-frozen ground are the immediate causes for the inundations. However, the Missouri River itself and its major tributaries are highly controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers and to a lesser extent by the Bureau of Reclamation. This article (click link to read) pins a large part of the current problem on the priorities of the Army Corps’ Master Control Plan.

A little background: In the 1950s, a bureaucratic turf war developed over water control west of the Ohio River Basin. The Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers both wanted access to dam sites and rivers in the Midwest and West. Congress ordered them to come to an agreement. To paraphrase a whole lot of books and a rather cynical professor, each group dropped one dam, merged their wish-lists, and created the Pick-Sloan Plan. Congress blessed it into existence. The Army Corps was in charge of most of the Missouri River proper, and the Bureau got irrigation dams and projects. The job of the Army Corps was navigation and flood control, in that order, with everything else a distant third. And so it remained for decades. Then environmental protection and remediation became the first priority for the Corps on the Missouri.

As a result, the Corps changed from releasing water in summer for barge traffic (keep water levels higher than in the past so that shipping could continue into August-September) to larger, faster spring releases that simulated the old “spring rise” of the unrestrained river. This meant reducing or ending preemptive releases that had lowered reservoir levels in order to prevent flooding. So the reservoirs are full (for duplicating the spring rise) just as lots of water comes in from spring melting.

This means that if we get a year such as this one, when a sudden slug of runoff hits the river from its tributaries before the usual date for the spring floods, there’s no storage space left unless the Corps (and others) do preemptive releases. Then you have minor flooding, but not long-lasting severe flooding (one hopes. Sometimes Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate.) However, that would mean that the ACoE and other entities put flood control above other interests.

The levee system is another bugbear. Levees do prevent flooding where they are intact. They also cause the channel to deepen and flow to accelerate between them because of the Bernoulli Effect. Where the levees end, and the water can spread out again, the flooding will be worse than if there had never been levees. Rivers build their own levees with silt and sediment deposits, but the modern system constrains rivers far more and straightens them out. This also accelerates flow. And when a levee fails or is overtopped, then the damage is greater because all that water really wants to reclaim its floodplain and is going to do it. You can deliberately blow levees in order to protect downstream property, as was done in 1927 in Louisiana and Mississippi, but the cost in property and human lives was very high. Now, with better warning systems, people should be able to get out of the way. Their livestock and crops, though…

I suspect, based on what facts I know and trust, that the ACoE policies exacerbated this year’s flooding. I remember growing up in Nebraska and hearing explosions from the Missouri and Elkhorn Rivers as the ACoE dropped dynamite on ice-jams to break them up and save the bridges, as well as reduce flooding. Rivers flood. That’s what rivers do. But how reservoir systems are managed, and how the rivers are channeled and directed can make enormous differences in the degree of flooding. In an ideal hydrologic world, the Missouri and Mississippi would be allowed to return to being meandering, relatively warm streams that rose in the spring and sank in late summer and fall, spreading their waters more widely but also having a lot more room for flooding. However, that doesn’t take into account people and the needs and desires of those living in the watershed.

I’d love to see Congress and the American people revert river management back to the watershed level, as John Wesley Powell proposed in the late 1800s. Let those most affected by the rivers determine what their priorities are and how they will be managed and used. If local people favor environmental restoration over flood control and are willing to live with the potential consequences, then so be it. If they decide that flood control and irrigation come first and some critters have to be given the back seat, so be it. We managed that in the Texas Panhandle, although it took a lot of work, cash, and using up a reserve of political favors. We also live in a place where downstream flooding due to releases from the local dams is, well, ah, let’s just say there’s so much room in the main-stem reservoirs that ark building will start here last if the Most High ever changes His mind about repeating the Flood.

No one is to blame for the weather. Enviro-centric river management policies have, in my opinion, made life worse along the main Missouri than it might otherwise have been.

11 thoughts on “Environment or Army Corps of Engineers: The Floods of 2019

  1. Pingback: Environment or Army Corps of Engineers: The Floods of 2019 — Cat Rotator’s Quarterly | Head Noises

    • You can control a flood.
      Right up until the moment that you can’t.

      If you’ve controlled several small floods, and channellized them to the same place at the same time… Well, you might just have one big problem.

      But, yes. Trying to balance hydropower generation, irrigation, and environmentalist demands with flood control leaves very little margin for error.

  2. On the regional authorities front, the Dayton area as the Miami Valley Conservancy District, which is responsible for flood control along the Great Miami River and its tributaries. It was established after the massive 1913 flood, and constructed a series of dry dams with massive basins behind them. Tangentially – Between the dislocation involved with Huffman Dam, and the subsequent construction of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, trying to puzzle out the former geography in the area as compared to the present is a challenge.

    • There is a geological book about Greene County from before the floor control thing. It is in Google Books.

      Moving Osborn house by house into Fairfield was the biggest difference.

      It still cracks me up that part of Wright-Patt is part of the emergency flood control, and that is why it has so much “unused” green space.

      • Moving Osborn was the biggest difference, but there are also all those sand and gravel pits that tore up much of the area in and around the former Osborn site, including chunks of the old road network. And some of the river tributaries appear to have shifted slightly. It is enough change that when I was trying to trace the route of the electric railroads through the area I was having to georeference really old USGS maps to get the positions, rather than simply comparing old map and new map and going “yep, that’s the same point.”

  3. So the idiots who build in flood plains get what they asked for (said the idiot who lives near one of the highest spots in the Missouri Ozarks). Seriously, though, anyone who builds in a flood plain WILL be flooded out sooner or later and should plan accordingly

  4. Agree wholeheartedly! When the econazis forced the change from flood control to environmental, that started the downhill slide.

  5. Remember John McPhee’s book The Control of Nature? IIRC, one of the three cases he discussed had to do with the Army Corps of Engineers and the consequences of trying to control the Atchafalaya river basin.

    Plus ca change…

  6. I’ve seen man caused floods (or at least exsacerbated) because of both misplaced priorities (keeping reservoirs full to release water later for fish spawning rather than lowering them in anticipation of snow melt) and due to human error (simply waiting too long to open spillways and then having to open them all wide open in order to prevent dam collapse, right when the water is at its highest). To be fair (and I don’t want to be) in the latter example the weathermen were not calling for as much rain as we got, which of course caused more snowmelt in the mountains also, so the engineers at the dam expected to be able to hold water behind the dam until the waters downstream had went down, and then they had too much to hold and had to dump into the already flooding downstream waters.

    I’ve at times thought that those people advocating so heavily for removal of all the dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers should get their desires. It is amazing how many of them live in the Portland area. Look at a floodmap someday. Portland Oregon and Vancouver Washington would not exist if it weren’t for the dams, they are the only thing preventing those cities from resembling lakes during spring thaw.

    • If I were evil I’d chortle at the ensuing messes. I wouldn’t because who can laugh at loss of life. But I would have a hearty horselaugh at the idiocy.

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