The Corps of Engineers Doubles Down on Flood Folly

It has been five months since the Missouri River overcame its banks, and for that entire time, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been peddling the line that there was nothing they could have done to avoid the worst flooding to ever occur on this river.  The Corps claims that its stewardship of the six massive dams on the upper Missouri River was without flaw, and the flood of 2011 was due to extraordinarily strong spring rains in Montana.

The statements of Corps representatives from the beginning have been inconsistent at best, and arguably deliberately misleading.  Water Management Chief Jody Farhat has contradicted and revised her own statements repeatedly since the alarm bells first rang on this disaster.  In response to a Corps official's runoff prediction on April 1, 2011, she characterized the looming mountain snowpack as "nothing to write home about."

National Weather Service data indicates that in fact, at the time of her statement, there was indeed a great deal to "write home about."  Moreover, internal e-mails released as a result of a FOIA request show that Farhat almost certainly knew that she wasn't telling the whole truth with that statement.

As I reported in a previous article, Brad Lawrence, the director of Public Works for the city of Ft. Pierre South Dakota, a city located on the banks of the Missouri next to the massive reservoir Lake Oahe, wrote a series of e-mails on the third of February detailing his conclusions that the reservoir levels were too high for a normal runoff year, and that this year's runoff "would be anything but normal."  These e-mails were widely disseminated amongst the EPA, FEMA, and emergency response coordinators in each state.

Lawrence had been studying the snowpack records from 2010, and he compared them to the current year.  His research showed a dramatically higher amount of snowpack in the Rocky Mountains, with an abnormally high "snow water equivalent" (SWE), meaning the snow contained a much higher percentage of water than normal.

The Corps later claimed that it had never seen the emails from Lawrence, but internal Corps communications indicated that they heard the same warnings from their own hydrologists throughout the Missouri River system, as well as from residents, and finally from their own headquarters in Washington -- all echoing the conclusions reached by Lawrence.  Despite clear advisories against underestimating the runoff potential, the Corps proceeded to do exactly that.  The end result has destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of highly productive farmland, as well as the homes and businesses of thousands of residents.  The repair costs for levees, bridges, and roadways alone will be in the billions.

Senator John Thune (R-SD) asked Lawrence to prepare a report of his findings to be entered into the congressional record and disseminated to the members of the Environment and Public Works committee at a hearing about the flood.  I have been given a copy of this report by Brad Lawrence, and I've excerpted relevant portions below.  The full report may be viewed here

The information contained in his report is devastating to the Corps's carefully constructed façade.  Lawrence's findings reveal that the snowpack levels (and the snow water equivalent of that snowpack) had already exceeded the previous years' mark by as much as 194%,  as early as February, a full two months before Jody Farhat made her misleading "nothing to write home about" statement.  Lawrence's calculations were echoed in the NWS Spring Flood Risk forecast released some two weeks later.  It is instructive to note that the 2010 runoff was itself 150%  above normal, and the 2011 measures were already more than half again as large, with much more snow and rain to come.

The following information is gleaned from Brad Lawrence's report to the Senate, as submitted for the record by Senator Thune.

National Weather Service (NWS) National Operational Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center (NOHRSC) calculates and publishes a snow analysis daily on its website.  This first graphic shows the SWE for 2010, which had runoff 150% above normal.  The pink areas indicate the snow with the highest water content.  The dark features in the center are the Missouri river and its reservoirs.

This second graphic shows the snow water equivalent for the same date in 2011.  As you can see, there is dramatically more pink on the western plains, and the pink is covering much more of the Missouri River Basin.

Lawrence notes:

[C]omparing just one day from one year to the next can be misleading since one good snow storm or one good melt might bias the total amounts significantly.  I compared day over day for the entire month of January prior to this date to determine that this was a trend and not an isolated occurrence.

The last graphic shows the SWE totals for the Northern and Central Rocky Mountains, which both drain into the Missouri river.  Note the date of April 1, 2011 -- the same day that Jody Farhat described the plains snowpack as "very little remaining" and the mountain snowpack as "nothing to write home about."  Ms. Farhat had access to the same information as Lawrence did (and a great deal more) at the time she made her misleading statements.

As Lawrence points out with devastating simplicity:

The SWE totals for the "nothing to write home about" Northern Rockies and Central Rockies snowpacks on April 1, 2011 were 14.4" and 7.1" respectively.  On April 1, 2010 those same SWE's were 8.4" and 4.3".  I won't even do the math as it is very easy to see the marked difference between 2010, a 150% runoff year, and the 2011 totals. 

Perhaps most distressing of all, the Corps has expressed its intention to make no changes whatsoever to the management of the Missouri River dam system for next year.  As Senator Thune asks in his statement to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, with all the information the Corps possessed, what prompted the Corps to gamble with the lives and property of millions of downstream residents?  Why did they not release more water sooner?

As I have pointed out in other articles on this subject, the Corps holds back water each spring in order to mimic the natural flood and ebb cycles of the pre-dam river as part of a larger effort to benefit threatened and endangered species.  The concept of "eco-system restoration" has gained supremacy over flood control.  The biologists of the Corps have spent millions and millions of dollars and man-hours attempting to manage the river as if the six mainstem dams did not exist.  As we learn more and more about what the Corps knew, and how soon they knew it, it is evident that the narrative promoted by the Corps is demonstrably false. 

Farhat stated in an interview with the Omaha World Herald that the Montana rains amounted to between 4 and 5 million acre-feet of additional runoff.  At a flow rate of 160,000 cubic feet per second, 5 million acre-feet would pass through the dam system in about three and a half days, and through the entire river system in about twenty days.  The release rate at Gavin's Point dam (the last dam in the chain) has been at 160,000 cubic feet per second for more than three months.  This fact alone puts the lie to the Corps's entire "official" story.

While it is true that some measure of flooding was certain to occur due to the dramatically higher SWEs and later rainfall events, it is equally certain that the severity of this flood could have been largely mitigated by responsible action taken earlier on the part of the Corps of Engineers.

Knowing that the Corps possessed the same data as Brad Lawrence, realizing that the Corps had received multiple warnings from reliable and knowledgeable sources, and understanding that they flatly refused to act upon this information in a timely fashion raises the question: was this incompetence or specific intent?  Could the green-enamored restoration crowd in the Corps have seen the opportunity to "restore the natural function of the river in a one year event," as said by Greg Pavelka, a high-level wildlife biologist with the Corps in an interview with the Seattle Times?

These questions deserve a transparent and immediate response.  Mainstream media outlets have thus far failed to pick up the story, so it is my hope that the congressional investigations into the conduct of the Corps gets to the bottom of this quickly.  We are approaching winter, and already the snowpack is building toward next year's runoff season.  Changes must be forced and decision-makers held to account.  The residents of the Missouri River valley cannot withstand a repeat of 2011.

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