North Dakota Officials: Missouri River Flood Warnings Late

By DALE WETZEL | August 24, 2011

Top U.S. Army Corps of Engineers personnel in charge of managing the Missouri River’s dam system exchanged internal emails in late April that described the upcoming flood season as “a huge water year” and possibly “one of the wettest years on record.”

But North Dakota water officials say serious concerns were not publicly conveyed until a month later, after heavy rains fell in eastern Montana, western South Dakota and northern Wyoming, and the Army Corps said it would be forced to substantially increase Missouri River dam releases to account for the rain and melting mountain snow.

Officials say by then it was too late for riverside residents to buy flood insurance, which does not take effect until 30 days after it was purchased, to cover resulting damage. The Federal Emergency Management Agency says the Missouri River flood officially began June 1, shortly after the corps began drastically increasing water flows through North Dakota’s Garrison Dam, so only policies bought by May 2 would have taken effect in time.

If property owners knew what the corps knew in late April, more may have bought coverage that would have provided some compensation for their ruined properties, said North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple and Todd Sando, chief engineer for the North Dakota Water Commission.

Jody Farhat, chief of the corps’ Missouri River basin water management office in Omaha, Neb., said the Army Corps is not “responsible for cluing people to” buy flood insurance.

“If people live in a flood plain – even back in February and March, we were saying it was going to be a wet year,” she said. “People could have made those decisions on their own, long before then.”

This year’s Missouri River flooding has forced thousands to flee their homes, inundated farmland and caused millions of dollars of damage in river towns from Montana to Nebraska.

An Associated Press review of more than 8,300 pages of internal Army Corps emails and documents from Jan. 1 through June 10, obtained through a federal Freedom of Information Act request, show that for most of that time the agency projected confidence that it had enough water storage space in its six Missouri River dams to handle spring flooding. The AP also requested North Dakota Water Commission documents from the same period.

The communications do not contradict Army Corps assertions that officials believed they were prepared until unexpectedly heavy spring rains combined with melting snowpack to cause an untenable rise in water levels. Water releases from the Garrison Dam in western North Dakota were subsequently increased to 150,000 cubic feet per second, a volume five times greater than the corps had planned for the summer months.

The agency has since defended its river management against sharp criticism. Members of Congress have promised hearings on the flood’s causes, and a group of Missouri River state governors met last week in Omaha and pledged to work together with the corps to make flood control a top priority.

In early March, Farhat said the corps was well prepared for the spring flooding season.

“The important thing is that the main stem reservoir system has plenty of room to store floodwaters if necessary,” Farhat said in a March 4 statement, echoing sentiments voiced in previous months.

On April 26, Col. Robert Ruch, commander of the Corps’ Omaha district, wrote to a number of Corps officials: “The bottom line is that we are buttoned up and ready for high water.”

But Sando, in an April 20 letter to Brig. Gen. John McMahon, commander of the Army Corps division that includes the Missouri River dams, said he was concerned the corps “forecast does not adequately address the current conditions in the basin and the potential for above-normal precipitation this summer.”

On April 20, Lake Sakakawea and Lake Oahe had some of the highest elevations on record for that month, Sando’s letter said. “The downstream discharges seem low compared to the mountain snowpack, and the current availability of flood storage,” he wrote.

McMahon replied that the corps constantly monitors water runoff.

By April 25, Farhat was expressing concern about “critical issues” with potential flooding.

“In other words, we must begin evacuating flood waters from the main stem system (as soon as possible),” she wrote in an email to Missouri state Rep. Randy Asbury, R-Higbee. “This may end up being one of the wettest years on record.”

Still, increased water releases from the Missouri’s upstream dams were delayed in late April and May because of flooding between Omaha and Kansas City, Mo., caused by local rainstorms.

The corps issued two public statements May 6 outlining comparatively small increases in water releases from North Dakota’s Garrison Dam and the Gavins Point dam, in southeastern South Dakota.

The next statement, issued May 23 after the heavy rains in Montana and the Dakotas, proclaimed: “Lots more water coming down the Missouri River – now!”

Corps spokeswoman Monique Farmer said it ultimately was late May’s heavy rains that “changed our operations and took away the flexibility of our original reservoir release plans.”

Few residents along the river had flood insurance coverage when the high water hit, according to FEMA.

Only 470 households in Bismarck, a city of 61,000, and 80 households in neighboring Mandan, a city of about 18,000, had coverage through July 29, the agency said. Only 43 households in the 13,600-resident city of Pierre, S.D., had policies. And in Union County, S.D., home to Dakota Dunes, a posh town of 2,500 with homes valued at more than $1 million, 172 households bought flood insurance.

Dalrymple said he would like to see the Army Corps translate its reams of data on river flows, dam releases and water runoff in ways that allow ordinary people to analyze their own risks for flood damage.

“We need some kind of warning system that the public can comprehend easily, so that you don’t have to be a water engineer to understand how to react to it,” Dalrymple said.

Farmer said corps officials are available to help people interpret its data.

“We have worked very hard to keep the public informed of our operations, to make information understandable, and to keep people apprised of our reservoir release and flood fight operations,” she said.

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