Cowman: Flooding offers valuable lessons

Tim Cowman, director of the Missouri River Institute at the University of South Dakota, used hard scientific data in his presentation Tuesday night about the effects of this year’s flooding on the Missouri River, and what possibly may occur in the future on the river. (Photo by David Lias)

The U.S. Corps of Engineers is projecting that Missouri River levels next year will likely be about average to above average, and not exceed flood stages as they did last summer.

However, Corps officials believed that would be the case earlier this year as they prepared to control water levels in the reservoirs behind the six mainstem dams that exist on the Missouri from South Dakota up to Montana as part of the Pick-Sloan plan.

Water levels of the Missouri next year aren't easy to predict, even when following the Corps' Master Water Control Manual, which is tweaked every year to keep up with trends on the river.

Cowman spoke Tuesday night, Oct. 18, before a small audience in the W. H. Over Museum in Vermillion to discuss the causes and impacts of this year's flooding on the Missouri, and policy decisions that are being considered now that the flooding has "officially" ended.

"According to what they (the Corps) are predicting in 2012, we will not get anywhere close to having to get into the exclusive flood control zone," he said. "They're basing that on predicted models for precipitation and snow pack, and they're also basing that on what they plan on releasing over the winter and the upcoming spring.

"One thing to keep in mind is that they were basically telling us the same thing last year at this time," Cowman said. "In the Corps' mind, this is how they think they system will set up next year."

Cowman is the director of the Missouri River Institute at the University of South Dakota and a natural resources administrator with the South Dakota Geological Survey. His work includes research on the geology and history of the Missouri River, with a focus on current and historical river geomorphology.

Cowman, who spoke for nearly two hours, avoided addressing some of the political aspects that have arisen since the flooding. He did voice disappointment, however, with the governor of Montana who has chosen not to participate in hearings held earlier this week.

The Associated Press reports that a meeting of Missouri River governors Monday revealed significant disagreement between Montana and states further downstream over flood control, even as federal officials warned the group that damage from this year's high water may make their states even more vulnerable next year.

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer fought against a developing notion that flood control for states further down the river should dominate how reservoirs are managed upstream. He told governors of the downstream states that such a plan would lead to empty reservoirs, which are relied upon for recreation, wildlife and agriculture, in Montana when a drought hits.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Monday declared the Missouri River flood officially over, saying the river has fallen below flood stages from Fort Peck in Montana to near St. Louis and water is off the levee system.

"What this means is that we are at a point where we can carefully examine the damages to the levee system and the dams," said Col Anthony Hofmann, commander of the Kansas City District. He expected a report by mid-November.

So far, $27.7 million has been set aside for repairs. The corps is waiting on funding by Congress for the rest. Early estimates show repairs could top $1 billion.

Schweitzer, who allowed reporters in his office for what was expected to be a private meeting, phoned into the Omaha conference in which governors from Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota and South Dakota took part. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon was in the meeting by phone, and Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead sent representatives. The host, Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, clashed several times with Schweitzer during the meeting.

Cowman chose to stick to hard data in his presentation. Scientific research seems to indicate that flooding may be more likely in the near future on the river.

Climate data presented by Cowman shows that the Midwest is entering a "wet cycle."

"If we're having to predict what our basin runoff is going to be, we need to take this into account so that we're not just working off of averages," he said. "We need to take into account the fact that the odds are going to be in our favor that next year and probably the year are going to be wet years with pretty high runoffs that are above normal. I think if we plan for that way, and adjust the system that way, we'll be much better prepared to handle these types of high runoff events."

Solutions to make sure a repeat of the damage to personal property and public infrastructure from this year's flooding doesn't occur range from changes to local zoning regulations to broadening the channelized portion of the Missouri below Sioux City, IA, Cowman said.

"I also think the debate has to happen about lowland flooding downstream, and how much weight should that hold in terms of how we manage our reservoirs," he said.

Some local zoning regulations considered for the construction of housing along the river state that dwellings must be setback 500 feet from the river's edge.

"That doesn't make a lot of sense," Cowman said, "because we have the technology these days, and the data and information to build much better types of setbacks."

Zoning officials should encourage homes to be built in areas that would not be heavily inundated with water should flooding occur, he said.

"I think there can be a solution that can be acceptable to most people … we can predict which areas are and are not going to be inundated with water. There are areas that sit pretty low topographically, and those are the areas one would expect local zoning to deal with," he said. "These kinds of things make more sense to most people rather than drawing a straight line at some distance from the river and saying you can't build there."

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