Different heartbreaking flood, same bitter lessons as 1993.
While holding open more space for water in reservoirs could help, genuine improvement in flood control along the Missouri River requires a broader approach that includes such controversial measures as moving back levees and slowing flood plain development, an Army Corps of Engineers analysis concluded.
The report, released Friday, verifies that last year's historic flooding could not have been avoided by freeing up room for additional water storage at reservoirs.
Even if the reservoirs were empty and the corps had a full year to funnel last year's runoff through its dams, the daily average for releases of water still would have set records.
And the damage still would have been widespread.
“We need to take a very deliberate approach,” said Brig. Gen. John McMahon, commander of the corps' Omaha District. “We're not making any recommendations with this report. It's meant to begin a discussion.”
The discussion has been had before, notably after the flood of 1993 that decimated the Missouri River valley and spawned a presidentially authorized study critical of the nation's flood control system.
McMahon invoked that study in calling for a river valley better prepared for flooding.
“If we're serious about being able to accommodate an event like what happened in 2011, we'll have to change the way the flood plain is viewed, and this involves all levels of government,” he said. “The sad truth is we'll have another one of these events ... now is the time to marshal the will and the resources to do something about it.”
The report included a cost-benefit analysis of how emptying the reservoirs for more flood storage would affect the system's other congressionally mandated purposes. A handful of those purposes were examined, including navigation, power generation and recreation. Not examined was the impact on endangered species.
The report concluded that all uses of the river other than flood control would suffer if more flood storage space were created.
U.S. Rep. Steve King, a Republican advocate of additional flood-control storage who represents western Iowa, took issue with that part of the analysis.
Last year's flooding shut the river down to navigation, but King said he believes that, in many years, additional storage space might help maintain the ability to navigate.
For many longtime flood observers, Friday's analysis contained few, if any, surprises.
Marlin Petermann, assistant general manager of the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District, said his agency has been working with local governments to improve flood-plain management. Among them are efforts to buy flood-prone land from landowners. The NRD also is studying the possibility of moving back the levees where the Platte and Missouri Rivers join, he said.
“We're looking at those sorts of things,” he said.
Stuart Maas, whose family owns farming and hunting land near Hamburg, Iowa, said farmers will need to be fairly compensated if levees are moved back.
That's been complicated by last year's flooding, because it destroyed some farmland. It wouldn't be fair, he said, to compensate farmers at post-flood land values.
The corps is moving the levee farther from the river on his farm ground.
Despite the talk of improved flood control, Maas worries that entrenched interests will make a holistic approach difficult. He says the corps is reluctant to take on groups that hold sway in Washington, D.C.
Competing economic interests along the river have made changing river management practices a years-long process. Interests include the barge industry, recreation and power generation, all of which usually need more, rather than less, water held behind the dams.
“I wish the corps luck,” Maas said.
Larry Larson, who heads the Association of Flood Plain Managers, agreed that tackling flood plains is thorny.
Levees get built right on top of rivers, he said, and federal taxpayers pick up the bill when the flood plain is poorly managed.
“We in our nation have grown accustomed to thinking we can get everything for nothing,” Larson said. He said it's a sense of, “I don't want to give up my land, but I sure don't want to be flooded.”
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The Missouri River has a variety of ways to flood, so altering how much space is held in the reservoirs for water storage to avoid historic flooding like last year's simply shifts the risks, an Army Corps of Engineers' analysis released Friday found.
To be sure, having extra flood-storage space would have lessened the extent of last year's record flooding, which caused damage up and down river well in excess of $1 billion. But significant damage still would have occurred.
Preparing space year in and year out for the extraordinary amount of runoff that came last year would provide a 1 percent increase in flood protection. That's because, based on the historic record, even bad years don't approach last year's level of runoff.
The study also points out that cities downstream of the reservoirs frequently experience flooding that has nothing to do with runoff above the dams.
Notable flooding in 2010, for example, occurred in southwest Iowa and south of there.
Furthermore, increasing the amount of space held back for flood-control storage adversely affects the economic value of the river's other purposes the corps is congressionally required to manage it for, including hydropower, navigation, recreation and several other purposes.
"This loss of economic benefits to other purposes is not offset by an increase in flood control benefits on an average annual basis," according to the report.
While the corps could increase flood storage in its reservoris, what's needed, according to the report, is a more wholistic approach that includes more space for flow downstream. That could be accommodated, for example, by moving levees farther back and decreasing development in the flood plain.
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