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Panel calls for changes to Missouri River manual, flood prediction system

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 20, 2011 - WASHINGTON - An expert panel that scrutinized the management of the Missouri River during this year's severe flooding suggests a "re-evaluation" of the master manual's guidance on how the Army Corps of Engineers should deal with such extreme events.

The report, released Tuesday, also recommends a review of the operational planning of the Missouri River system in the wake of "extreme runoff events" of recent decades that may possibly reflect changes in climate cycles.

And the two-month study also suggests a review -- based on this year's flooding -- of "storage allocations" in the six giant reservoirs in the upper Missouri that help regulate river levels. The panel said that review should examine "flood control storage needed for floods like 2011 or larger."

The four-member panel concluded that the Corps had managed those reservoirs as well as it could, given constraints that left it with "few options" to stop the deluge. "The flood ... was a record-breaking event with unprecedented levels of runoff that could not be predicted in advance, and the Corps responded well to a difficult test of historic dimensions," the report said.

While noting that the Corps "could have reduced the impact of the flood with more [reservoir] storage and higher releases before the flood," the experts cautioned that "these actions carried risks and consequences that did not seem appropriate to the Corps at the time." And the master manual, the plan that guides the river's management, did not give adequate guidance for an event of the magnitude of this year's flood.

This summer's flood, which set records in some areas, caused an estimated $630 million in damage to the levees, dams and other structures that help control the river, which flows 2,341 miles from Montana through North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and Missouri.

Brig. Gen. John R. McMahon, commander of the Corps' Northwestern Division, said Tuesday that officials will review the report to determine which recommendations can be incorporated into to the Corps' 2012 annual operating plan. "Some of the recommendations may take time to implement, but we are paying close attention to the 2012 water situation as it develops and the status of levee and other infrastructure repairs along the Missouri River," McMahon said in a statement.

The 93-page study touched on several of the questions that 13 U.S. senators from Missouri Basin states -- including Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. -- asked the U.S. Government Accountability Office to investigate earlier this month.

The four-member expert panel examined whether the Corps' river management decisions during the flood followed the master manual and whether the Corps could have prevented or reduced the impact of flooding by taking other actions prior to the flood. For example, the experts examined whether long-term regulation forecasts properly accounted for the runoff into the main stem system; the effects that climate change might have played in this year's record runoff; and the impact of floodplain development on the flooding. 

This year's floods were significant even looking back 100 years.

Among the review's conclusions and recommendations were:

  • The master manual for river management should be re-evaluated to offer a workable plan to dealing with extreme flood events. "The panel found that the decisions of the corps were appropriate and in line with the appropriate manuals, but both the manuals and the decision-making process can be improved," the study said. "During extreme flood events, such as in 2011, the master manual does not provide a workable formula for operational decisions and during extraordinary flooding experience-based judgment along with repetitive quantitative analysis must be used."
  • Given the importance of precipitation forecasting, the panel recommends studies to enhance data collection, forecasting, and modeling of snow pack and resulting runoff.
  • Updates are needed to flood probability models, predictions and procedures. While conceding that the question of whether severe flooding might be related to climate change is "beyond the scope of this report," the experts said that "climatic extremes" seem to be getting "bigger and more frequent."
  • A "system-wide decision support system" should be established that combines improved data and forecasting systems with operational procedures and more flexible control of flood storage space. It would include data on the status of tributary reservoirs and inflows and would be linked to a modern interactive graphic forecast system.
  • More federal funding should be made available to repair and maintain the current system of spillways, tunnels and other infrastructure along the Missouri River.

The study ("Review of the Regulation of the Missouri River Mainstem Reservoir System During the Flood of 2011") was conducted this fall by civil engineering professor Neil Grigg of Colorado State University and three hydrologists: Cara McCarthy of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Bill Lawrence of the National Weather Service, and Darwin Ockerman of the U.S. Geological Survey.
"The Corps ultimately had to balance the cost of elevated reservoir releases and the accompanying losses versus dam safety and the implications of a dam break," the experts concluded. "The panel heard testimonies about the destruction and witnessed devastating losses as a result of the high releases. After studying the conditions, the panel believes the Corps had few options."

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

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