Nebraska Flooding: When the Government Cares More about Birds than People

When I recently discussed (in these pages) the degree of responsibility for the current catastrophic flooding that should accrue to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), I clearly stated that the entirety of flooding could not have been prevented by the Corps or any other organization. 

However, the severity and frequency of flooding throughout the Missouri River basin — most specifically, what has resulted in all but nine of Nebraska's 93 counties being under a federal disaster declaration — has increased dramatically due to one reason only, and it ain't climate change.

Average runoff in the Missouri River basin above Sioux City between the completion of the dams in 1967 and 2004 (when the management priorities were altered) averaged 25.19 million acre-feet (MAF).

The average runoff between 2004 and 2018 is 25.3 MAF, a statistically insignificant difference.  The 2004–2018 average includes two of the three highest runoff years since the advent of the dams, 41.3 MAF in 2018 and 61 MAF in 2011.

However, the 1967–2004 average includes seven of the top ten runoff years since the dams began operation, including the second highest runoff recorded: 49 MAF in 1997.

Yet, despite these stressors, before the Corps abandoned flood control as the highest priority of the dam system, these seven top ten high runoff years resulted in flooding far less severe and significantly less frequent than that seen since the change.


There is much more to the "management" of the Missouri River basin than just how and when to drain water.

In the interest of habitat restoration, etc. (the highest priority since 2004), tens of thousands of acres surrounding the river and more than a thousand miles of riverbank have been mechanically altered by the Corps — not with an eye to controlling flooding, but rather to facilitate the "reconnection of the river with its floodplain," believed to be a necessity in achieving the goal of species and habitat preservation and restoration.

When the Corps believed that protecting people and property was a more worthy aim than fish and wildlife, the riverbanks were stabilized, shored against erosion and high-water events.  The channels were kept largely free of silt infill to facilitate the draining efficiency of the river that essentially deals with the runoff of vast millions of square miles of mountain and plains snow and rain.

Dikes were built and maintained.  Levees, too.  Chutes (secondary channels of a meandering river) were closed to inhibit the ability of the river to overcome its banks in seasons of high-water.  All these things (and more) combined to permit millions of Americans to develop the reclaimed lands, for farming, ranching, and homes.  Indeed, these millions of Americans were encouraged to do so by their elected representatives, who happily took credit for the resulting economic benefits and increased tax revenues.

Until 2004, the government kept its end of the bargain, and flooding, while still a danger, was dramatically lessened in frequency and severity by the prudent operation of the dam system and the mechanical restructuring of the river itself.

That last paragraph, while perfectly reasonable to normal folks, is cause for outrage and seething anger among the increasingly radical environmentalist left, which is enamored of a dream of "rewilding" vast sections of North America via the "recovery" of river basins. 

One might ask, "Recovery from what?"  In a word, the answer is "man."  Environmental groups like the Sierra Club and American Rivers advocate the wholesale removal of dams, even if it requires the forced relocation of millions of people and their businesses.  They seek a continent with untamed rivers, devoid of human interference with the perceived "natural processes" of ebb and flood.  At this level of green-think, it is more religion than science, with devotion measured in antipathy for the needs of mankind whenever there is conflict with nature.

There is a recurrent phrase used in Corps and other agencies discussions of "river recovery."  That phrase is "reconnecting the river to its floodplain."  The importance of this concept to the overall goal of "river recovery" can be readily seen in the anthropomorphic spall that surrounds its use, as if the river is a mother cruelly separated from her child, the floodplain, by the heartless brutality of man.

What does "reconnecting the river to its floodplain" mean?  Just ask the plaintiffs who recently won a 375-million-dollar judgment against the Corps for causing repeated flooding and enhancing those floods' severity.  The phrase is a euphemism for letting the river flood despite decades of efforts to prevent just that.

Since 2004, the Corps has been notching levees and dikes and re-opening old river chutes, destabilizing the once-shored riverbanks and encouraging shallowing and widening to facilitate the construction of "emergent sandbar habitat" — believed to be beneficial to the endangered Least Tern and Piping Plover bird species and the Pallid Sturgeon, a dinosaur of a fish that somehow managed to survive for millennia without the Corps's assistance.

The Corps's mechanical alterations of the river have combined to the detriment of flood control by raising the WSE (water surface elevation), dramatically reducing the ability of the river to accept runoff from adjoining fields and the hundreds of tributaries that all rely on the Missouri. 

It is this engineered reduction in capacity, combined with ill considered maintenance of unnecessarily high reservoir and river levels throughout the system, that made certain that the freakish snowmelt generated by the "bomb cyclone" of early March had nowhere to go except everywhere it should not have been.

That is why flooding has increased in frequency and severity, not climate change, nor a failure of the dam system to work as designed.  Rather, the dam system's design has been thwarted in service to an environmentalist dream of a return to an untamed river, free to nourish Mother Earth with its life-giving waters as Mother River again embraces her beloved child, the floodplain.

To hell with those in the way.

The author writes from Omaha, Nebraska and welcomes visitors to his website,

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