Monday, June 06, 2011

Hobson's Choice

This has been a tough Spring in the heartland, to be sure: massive tornadoes in Alabama and Missouri, and floods from Maine to Louisiana to Arizona.
Comes today's story of tragedy: the Army Corps of Engineers may have to purposely breach some levies along the Missouri River in order to save other towns from catastrophic floods.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is flooding Pierre, Fort Pierre, Dakota Dunes and other spots along the Missouri River in South Dakota because the corps is doing the job Congress has required.

Those responsibilities, set in federal laws, include flood control storage; supporting navigation; hydro-electricity generation; water supply for communities and industry; irrigation; recreation; and protection of threatened and endangered species.

The corps is being widely faulted these days for its handling of the Missouri River last fall and winter and this spring. The common accusation is the corps should have been releasing more water from the Missouri River reservoirs in the months past.

Sounds good, but here are the facts.

Records show the corps released much more water last fall than in almost any other year since the dam system was strung together in the 1950s and ’60s.

Right now, the floods are way back up in the headwaters of the river and the tributaries that feed into it: melting snowpack and early Spring rains have swollen brooks and srpings which in turn swell streams which in turn...well, you get the drift. Normally, not so much an issue. Floodplains are designed to be flooded. The problem is those floodplains are also flat, fertile, arable land and now farmers and farming communities have sprung up to use that land.
Farther down the Missouri River lie cities and towns like Sioux City, IA, and both Kansas Cities. And the Missouri meets the already-flooded Mississippi just north of St. Louis.
Even if the ACE had wanted to release a torrent of water from the Mizzou, it would only have created a bigger problem down in New Orleans, which was saved only by opening a floodway for the first time in 40 years. That opening was only about 25%. A larger opening would have inundated thousands of Louisiana residents and wreaked economic havoc of the kind the BP spill created.
Not a pretty sight, in other words. The ACE was really only left with one choice: take it or leave it. Let everything collapse on nature's schedule or try to slowly drain what it could, where it could and hope for the best.
The second half of that gamble is now underway.