Between the Lines: Don’t play the blame game

There�s a lot of finger pointing going on right now.

It began nearly right from the start, when it became apparent that the only way to save homes in Pierre, Fort Pierre, Dakota Dunes and other points along the Missouri River was to stack sandbags and build dikes.

And hope. And pray.

When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced last Friday that water releases from Oahe would have to be increased, no doubt many people who have been growing skeptical of the management of the river system grew even more wary.

It didn�t help when the Corps had to announce Tuesday that flows from Gavins Point Dam near Yankton would soon be increased from 150,000 cfs to 160,000 cfs, sending more water toward Clay County, Jefferson, Dakota Dunes and Sioux City, IA.

There is no doubt a lot of anger building among many South Dakotans. We can understand that, especially if they have had to work feverishly to try to protect their homes. We know some homeowners have lost that battle, and the feeling of loss can only grate at one�s raw emotions even more.

It�s easy to blame the Corps. Or Mother Nature. Or both.

It�s not as easy to look at our collective actions over the years, and how they may have contributed to the problems we are now experiencing.

That�s why we hope we can reach a point where everyone can collectively take a deep breath and, in earnest, examine what is happening to the Missouri River right now.

And more importantly, determine why it is happening.

John Cooper, the retired secretary of the state Game, Fish and Parks Department and an adviser to Gov. Dennis Daugaard on Missouri River issues, quickly can think of several things the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should study.

The corps' use of weather data and the movement of information through the corps bureaucracy both need scrutiny and would be good places to start, Cooper told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.

"Do we know enough about how water runs off the high country and off our own prairies to know how that equates to what happens in reservoirs?" he asked.

Also, the corps' runoff projections skyrocketed throughout the spring, from 37.8 million acre feet in April to 44 million acre feet in May to 52.5 million acre feet in June. For perspective, the highest previous runoff ever was in 1997, 49 million acre feet.

All of that data has many people wondering if the Corps got caught with its waders down.

Eric Stasch, the corps' engineers program manager at Oahe Dam, has said that his agency had a plan in place to deal with the runoff this year, but it was undone by torrential rains across the Missouri River's headwater drainage in May.

But Cooper points to the fact South Dakota received only a week's warning before the corps dramatically stepped up water releases, and he questions whether the corps adequately accounted for the effect of record runoff.

"What was the corps thinking when that projection line was trending upward?" Cooper said. "I would have hollered an alarm. I would have said something to somebody."

A thorough study may determine that the Corps could have done a better job. It may also exonerate the Corps, and note that the one-two punch of record snowpack and heavy spring rains was just too much for our system of dams and reservoirs to handle.

There are other factors that may have contributed to this year�s flooding.

The Missouri basin states have lost millions of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres in the past five years.  Those CRP lands were valuable because they either slowed or halted runoff into streams and rivers. Has that exacerbated the problem?

What about the navigation channel south of Ponca, NE? Has it worsened the flooding along the lower Missouri? Has the channel�s pile dikes, revetments, and chevrons, which reduces the lower Missouri�s carrying capacity, made it impossible for the river to deal with high flows discharged by Gavin�s Point Dam?

What about the silt build-up in the river here in South Dakota because of the dams? Has that added to our woes? 

Could the navigation channel south of Sioux City be a source of what�s ailing the river?  Nearly a quarter of the total storage space in the mainstem reservoirs is set aside to ensure a nine-foot depth in the lower Missouri during the navigation season from mid-March to mid-November.  What if the Corps had not been required to store water for the navigation channel, and instead would have had more storage space available in reservoirs for the freakish amount of precipitation received (and still falling) in the Missouri River basin?

There are a lot of questions that need to be answered. It�s time to find those answers. Playing the blame game may make us feel a bit better temporarily, but will solve nothing.

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