Editorial Roundup: South Dakota

Yankton Press & Dakotan. June 7, 2021.

Editorial: USACE And Lessons From 2011

The decade that’s passed since the Missouri River flood of 2011 has seen a lot of changes in the way we look at the river, and that also includes the entity that manages and oversees it.

A story in Saturday’s Press & Dakotan looked back on the historic flood and how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) faced this epic crisis. The story also discussed what lessons the Corps learned and has applied since, especially during the bomb cyclone flooding of 2019.

While mechanical issues on operating the dams have been modified with the passage of time, how the Corps has dealt with the public has clearly evolved. Expanded communication has become a priority, which has included monthly webinars during the first half of each year, and perhaps longer in cases of emergencies. (The 2019 flood was one such example; for exactly the opposite problem, this is happening currently because of the expanding drought conditions.) These webinars cover the entire basin, which brings everyone to the table in discussing shared issues.

These events also illustrate the formidable — sometimes nearly impossible — task the USACE faces in managing the river.

As we’ve pointed out before, the Missouri River is actually two rivers: everything above Gavins Point Dam and everything below it. For the Corps, balancing the two to everyone’s satisfaction may not be impossible, but it likely resides next door to it.

In 2011, heavy waters roaring down the Missouri River from Montana and North Dakota forced massive discharges at Gavins Point Dam, as well as Fort Randall Dam and others up the chain, in order to reduce the pressure on the reservoir’s storage capacity, but this then resulted in major flooding below Gavins Point, particularly near Yankton and at Dakota Dunes and Sioux City.

This conflict was also evident in the briefings held during the 2019 flooding. While the Corps was working to evacuate the sudden springtime rush of water at the dams, the southern reach of the basin was inundated by river flooding. As reporters in the upper basin were wondering how soon the storage levels could be vacated to allow for other flood events, some journalists in the basin end were occasionally asking why, for instance, discharges at Gavins Point couldn’t be reduced or even halted to give the high waters a chance to recede. (The issue was renewed somewhat in September of that year during the record flooding on the James River; people along the James River valley wanted the Corps to reduce flows at Gavins Point Dam to allow the James to drain more quickly, even while storage evacuation still remained a concern.)

These decisions have not become any easier because of the lessons of 2011 and 2019, but communicating what is happening and why it’s happening has been more imperative.

We have not, do not and never will envy the Corps’ role in doing all this, and it’s a job that may become trickier in the future. With climate change, we are apparently seeing increased major weather “uprisings” (like the 2019 bomb cyclone) that are creating more stresses and uncertainties on the basin, sometimes with very short notice. Communicating with the public and appropriate officials — the “stakeholders” along the river — is imperative, and the USACE appears to have embraced that reality.