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Senators press Corps for plan to avoid a repeat of Missouri River flooding

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 8, 2011 - WASHINGTON - As the Army Corps starts its "gradual drawdown" of water from the swollen Missouri River reservoirs, U.S. senators from the river states -- including Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. -- are asking the agency to detail its plan to avoid a 2012 rerun of this year's flooding.

"We believe it is critical that the lessons learned from this year's event be factored into next year's plan and that appropriate mechanisms be incorporated to allow for deviation from that plan should circumstances dictate," wrote the members of the recently formed Missouri River Working Group.

Under its new "gradual drawdown approach," the Corps started releasing less water last week from its southernmost reservoir, Gavins Point, and will gradually reduce the releases from the current 150,000 cubic feet of water per second (cfs) to about 90,000 cfs in late August. By the end of September, the release rate will declined to 40,000 cfs -- slightly above the typical fall release rate.

That plan "would give the system the flexibility needed to store additional floodwaters if another significant rainfall event happens this year," said Brig. Gen. John McMahon, commander the Corps' Northwestern Division, in a statement. "Our primary objective with this gradual drawdown schedule is to be ready for the 2012 runoff season" in the late spring. "To do that, we must evacuate water from the reservoirs and the floodplain in a safe and responsible manner."

But that is a tricky calculation, given that the National Weather Service is forecasting a wetter than normal autumn. In their letter to McMahon and the Corps' deputy commander, Maj. Gen. William T. Grisoli, the senators asked how such weather data will be used to help prevent more flooding. The lawmakers also asked the Corps how it is evaluating the changes needed to reduce the risk of flooding next year, whether it needs congressional authority to make such changes, and how it plans to improve communications with the public and government officials on potential flood risks, reservoir conditions, and the Corps' operating decisions.

The senators asked the Corps to devise a plan and a timeline for requested federal assistance in repairing damage to levees and other flood-control structures so they are ready for any high water next year. "It's high time to figure out how to avoid a similar scenario next year," said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. "Flood control must the top priority for how the [Corps] manages the dams on the river," Grassley said.

Jody Farhat, chief of Missouri River Basin Water Management Division, said last week that the "gradual release" schedule "puts us in the best position to draw down the water as quickly and as responsibly as possible, while allowing us time to inspect, assess and repair damages."

Farhat said the Corps reviewed eight water-drawdown options with technical experts, considering such factors as the potential impact to homes, farms and businesses in the floodplain; weather forecasts through 2012; acceptable release rate reductions from the dams; water levels on the temporary and downstream levees; impact on critical infrastructure such as roads and bridges; and whether to increase the amount of flood control storage for the 2012 runoff season.

In their letter, sent Monday, the senators expressed concern about the time it takes to repair water-soaked levees and asked how the Corps plans to adjust its 2012 operating plan -- which is governed by a master manual -- "to consider impaired levees or other protective measures."

Paul T. Johnston, a spokesman for the Corps' Omaha district, told the Beacon on Monday that such levee repairs "are a major cause of concern" -- and an important reason for reducing water releases from the big reservoirs to lower river levels downstream. "We need to get the water off the levees so they can drain out and be repaired," he said.

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.

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