Click here to read a PDF of the panel's report.
The Army Corps of Engineers needs a 21st-century field guide as good as its officers and engineers to deal with the climatic extremes that produced this year's unprecedented Missouri River flooding, according to an independent panel of experts.
While praising corps personnel for doing all they could to avert the worst of this summer's flooding, the review panel described the Master Manual — the corps' river management bible — as a less-than-perfect guide.
The 99-page report agrees with corps officers and civilian engineers who said from the start of flooding in late May that runoff totals unmatched in recorded history were too much for federal dams to handle.
In the end, there was little more the corps could do, said Dr. Neil Grigg, a Colorado State University civil engineer who led the technical review of how the corps managed the river this year.
“We found no acts of negligence or problems of that nature that created or exacerbated the flooding,” Grigg said.
In a teleconference, the panelists, while acknowledging some room for improvement, said corps personnel did an outstanding job managing the flood.
“We felt the corps did an extraordinary job under a lot of duress and stress,” Grigg said.
Flood victim Scott Ward of Dakota Dunes, S.D., remains skeptical.
“It's total bunk,” he said. “It's hard to imagine that you could have the scale of flooding we had and the corps gave us one week's warning. They knew what was coming for four months and did nothing to avert it.”
Record runoff from rainstorms and melting snow overwhelmed the corps' ability to prevent flooding. Cities and rural areas from Montana to Missouri experienced unprecedented flooding as the corps passed water out of its large Missouri River dams.
A summer of high water burst through levees and encroached on towns, destroying farmsteads, businesses, dwellings and highways. The damage is expected to tally in the billions. The corps estimates its bill to repair levees alone at $588 million.
In hindsight, the panel agreed with the corps that having more room for flood storage behind the agency's big dams and releasing water sooner could have reduced the effects of the flood — but they would have needed more flexibility from the Master Manual to do so effectively.
“It's important to understand that there's a tricky balance in trying to find the optimum way to operate the system,” Grigg said.
The panel noted that the corps had nearly all its normal flood storage available on March 1 and released additional water in March and April in response to increasing runoff forecasts.
“But they could not have foreseen the need to evacuate storage faster to accommodate the heavy rain that occurred during May,” the report says.
The findings mirrored those of an October in-depth report by The World-Herald on how little room the corps had this year to manage the river differently.
Among the panel's recommendations for the future:
>> Adjusting flood probabilities to reflect recent decades of varying climatic extremes.
>> Changing storage allocations to reflect the unprecedented runoff into the reservoir system, something the corps is studying.
>> Improved communication with the National Weather Service and other water science, resource and emergency management agencies.
>> Studies to enhance information and runoff forecasting from Plains snowpack.
>> Modernization of real-time information systems on tributary reservoirs and inflows, linked to an interactive graphic forecasting system.
Amen, said flood victims.
“The parameters have changed, so obviously they're going to have to leave more room in the pond to have some flood control,” said Lynn Binder, a Table Rock, Neb., farmer whose farmland in Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri was flooded.
Ward, whose Dakota Dunes house was saved by an emergency levee built across his yard, said the corps is capable of managing the river.
“If they do it right, it can be done right,” he said. “We could have avoided the flood damage we saw in 2011.”
Grigg, the Colorado State professor, said dams and levees can only do so much. People who live and work in the flood plain also need to accept responsibility for being in harm's way, he said.
“We were a little bit surprised as we talked with residents that they were not more aware of the risk they were taking by being in the flood plain,” Grigg said.
“They tended to think they were going to be totally protected by those dams. ... A lot of education needs to be done.”
Other report highlights:
>> No forecasting agency accurately predicted the volume of extreme runoff that came.
>> The corps did not operate the river for Mississippi River flooding, endangered species in the Missouri or other environmental purposes in a way that influenced flooding.
The panel also said it believes that recognition of climate cycles might enable the corps to sustain management of the river's eight congressionally mandated purposes while still focusing on flood control and wet weather.
For example, 2011 was the fourth consecutive year of above-average runoff after seven years of drought. Had the corps adjusted its river management after a second year of above-normal runoff, additional storage may have lessened, but not necessarily prevented, this year's flooding, the panel said.
“The corps needs to be given flexibility to manage the changing, wetter conditions but also needs to be removed from reproach, if … the following year turns out dry,” the panel said.
Brig. Gen. John R. McMahon, the corps' Northwestern Division commander, said officials will review the report to determine what elements of the panel's recommendations can be incorporated into the agency's plan for operating the river in 2012.
“Some of the recommendations may take time to implement,” he said.
McMahon said the corps continues to pay attention to winter snowpack depths and is busy repairing levees along the river.
The report is the first outside review of how the corps managed the river this year. It is the result of more than two months of analysis, interviews and research by four authorities in hydrology and water management.
“This is a very important ... first step for the corps to be held accountable to the people of the Missouri River basin who we serve,'' McMahon said.
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