Bismarck, N.D. • I applaud the decision to start looking into what happened by our North Dakota senators to try to understand why a mega-flood has occurred this spring and summer on the Missouri River. The devastation from Montana to Missouri is catastrophic and has left many wondering how this could have happened.
Let's hope that a quick and decisive investigation comes up with recommendations within 90 days to ensure that something changes in the management structure of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to prevent this catastrophe from happening again.
In the final "Missouri River Mainstem System 2010-2011 Annual Operating Plan" issued by the corps last December, there are no signs of the impending doom that would befall our communities along the 750 miles of the Missouri River from the six massive dams that are suppose to protect us. Yet a reading of this report does indicate that an oversight committee and at least one formula used to manage and predict events have been altered over the years. These changes may have gradually shifted the management of the dams and may have contributed to the course of catastrophe that we were led upon.
I cite one that I had to read twice. The record May rains in the Upper Basin of 2011 did indeed spell disaster for us. Yet, according to the AOP, "Simulations for the March 1, 2011 to February 29, 2012 time period use five statistically derived inflow scenarios based on an analysis of historic water supply. The report detailing the development of these inflow scenarios was updated in July 2008 to include 9 additional years of inflow data that now extends from 1898 to 2006. Using statistically derived inflow scenarios provides a good range of simulation for dry, average, and wet conditions, and eliminates the need to forecast future precipitation, which is very difficult."
While I will grant you that trying to "forecast future precipitation" is very difficult, eliminating them from modeling may have contributed to this disaster. If one only looks at data 100 years back or so, you will miss some significant events. As noted by meteorologist Mike Maguire, "Using model data from 100 years clearly limits pre-emptive actions "that could have been taken leading up to this catastrophe.... To use only 100-year river data is to assume that a 500-year flood will not be coming this year. Remember, computers and humans are limited by assumptions."
The original mission of creating the six mainstem dams along 750 miles of the Missouri River was to prevent the annual floods that caused millions of dollars in destruction to property. From 1953 until 1982, there was a coordinating committee that consisted of federal, state and local agencies and private citizens that made recommendations to the corps on how to operate the system of dams. That changed in 1982 when Congress eliminated that committee because it did not meet the definition of an advisory committee. When you read the AOP today, it talks little about flood control and more about protecting nesting habitats, providing recreation access and ensuring enough water downstream for barge traffic on the lower stem of the Missouri River.
Here's a typical example from page 16 of the December AOP:
"If runoff is not sufficient to keep all the pool levels rising during the fish spawn in 2011, the Corps will, to the extent reasonably possible while serving other Congressionally authorized project purposes, set releases to result in a steady to rising pool at Garrison from April 20 to May 20. Adjustments to Garrison's releases, however, may be restricted when the terns and plovers begin nesting in May. A rising pool at Garrison during the fish spawn in April and May will be dependent upon the daily inflow pattern to the reservoir but appears possible for all runoff simulations."
Many wonder how much of trying to serve "other congressionally authorized project purposes" contributed to the problem of allowing the corps to 'set releases to result in a steady to rising pool at Garrison from April 20 to May 20." It seems hard to believe that the corps could not conceive that we could have runoff to the magnitude that it has become today: A record-breaking, off-the-charts mega-flood that is producing six to eight times the volume of water that normally discharges through the system for months.
Why wasn't there enough storage capacity available when the "big event" came this year? Did management and a changed formula contribute to this catastrophe?
The AOP gives us a few clues into the inner-workings of the Corps of Engineers. Changing models, formulas and advisory committees over time seem to be part of the recipe for a disaster. A quick and decisive investigation will need to change something in how the dams operate.
That means changing something in the management structure of the corps quickly. Perhaps looking at what worked from 1953 to 1982 is a good starting point. We need to act quickly or disaster could happen next year.
We don't need to lay blame, but we do need to ensure it doesn't happen again to those who trusted that it could not have happened in the first place.
Mark Armstrong is a Burleigh County
Commissioner in Bismarck, N.D.