Battling the Muddy Missouri and Army Corps of Engineers

10:36AM Dec 21, 2018
TJ and Tom Mackland
More than 150 miles downstream from Gavins Point dam, TJ, left, and Tom Mackland, are still dealing with water standing on some of their Iowa fields.
( Tom Mackland )

In 2011, Tom Mackland looked out over the water-logged wasteland he called home for 28 years. Dam releases along the Missouri River north of his Crescent, Iowa, farm led to extreme flooding, which destroyed not only his family’s home but caused billions of dollars in damage to other properties and roadways.

Rushing floodwater washed nearly three decades of memories down the river. Seven years later nearby fields are flooded yet again.

“It was a great place to live and raise a family,” Mackland says. Today it’s an 800-plus acre farm of which they’ve harvested just under 200 acres. They’re still trying to secure a combine with tracks with the plan to harvest in the middle of the night when the ground is frozen to salvage as many of those acres as possible.

Four of the past 10 years, Mackland has experienced flooding from the Missouri River. This year, he’ll only harvest a quarter of his 2,000 corn and soybean acres. The closest dam release is Gavins Point, in Yankton, S.D., two hours from his farm.

Mackland and other farmers along the Missouri River recognize some flooding is inevitable. However, he and other farmers often question how much is due to mismanagement by the Army Corps of Engineers and misplaced government priorities.

“The 2018 season has been long—the Missouri River has been high all season,” says Jud Kneuvean, Army Corps of Engineers chief of emergency management for the Kansas City district. “It’s the third-highest runoff year in 120 years.”

Runoff required the Corps to release water into the lower basin. In addition, parts of southeastern South Dakota and northwestern Iowa received significant rainfall this summer and fall, in some areas 20" above normal, a factor the Corps is not able
to control.

While rainfall is in the hands of Mother Nature, not the Corps, some farmers want to see changes in how runoff from snowpack and rain in the upper basin is managed.

“It’s safe to say flood control has gotten worse over the past 10 years—the management of the river has changed, the Master Manual has changed and many habitat projects were built along the river that change the way the river flows in high water events,” says Tom Waters, chairman of the Missouri Levee and Drainage District Association. “We’re seeing more water come to the river faster and there have been no flood control projects in rural areas.”

The Master Manual guides those with jurisdiction over the river to work toward common objectives while regulating the six reservoirs.

Higher-than-normal snowpack, combined with fast-falling rain runoff, meant the Missouri River system quickly reached water levels that demanded system releases this year. Even today, certain releases remain open, leaving farmers and business owners downstream with little hope the water will soon recede.

“Due to this year’s high runoff and the water currently being stored in the reservoirs to control flooding, Gavins Point releases will remain near 58,000 cu. ft. per second for the remainder of the navigation season. This will ensure evacuation of all stored flood waters prior to the 2019 runoff season with much of that occurring before the river freezes over in the northern reaches,” says John Remus, who serves as chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Missouri River Basin Water Management Division.

According to Kneuvean, what is being released at Gavins Point is about 18,000 cu. ft. per second higher than normal. The Corps will adjust flow rates if downstream conditions warrant it, which was the case in early fall when they reduced the Gavins Point release by 12,000 cu. ft. per second until the heavy rains in the lower parts of the Missouri River basin subsided.

Farmers feel left off when it comes to the list of river management priorities. Water from the river, dams and lakes in northern states is used for recreation and environmental purposes, but farmers are left wondering where downstream flood control ranks in governmental priorities.

Just east of Kansas City, Mo., Jeff Nail and his father farm 5,500 acres, the majority of which is bottom ground along the Missouri River, and today inaccessible because of flooding. Three hours south of Mackland, he too feels the pain of what he calls “mismanagement” by the Corps and governing bodies on the river.

“It seems the water comes up faster than it did 20 years ago when I started farming,” says the Orrick, Mo., farmer. “I don’t know how they calculate snowmelt, rain and other things, and I realize you can’t stop Mother Nature, but we don’t feel enough priority is given to flood control.”

The mainstrem system’s annual base is 56.1 million acre feet in reservoirs. Anything above that, up to 72.4 million acre feet, is available for flood control storage, Remus says.

“After the 2011 flood, we looked at if more flood storage would make a difference, but it really wouldn’t because we release all the water that comes in,” Remus explains. “So, whether you have 16 million or 20 million acres of storage we’re still releasing that water.”

Not everyone sees it that way.

“To me [adding more flood storage] is the only way to alleviate this ever-increasing problem,” Mackland says. “The March 1 level has been required to be 56.1 million acre feet for as long as I can remember. When they first picked that number it could have been 50.1 or 61.1 million acre feet but it wasn’t. It’s a no-brainer that having 5 million acre feet more storage on March 1, 2018 would have helped tremendously.”

The Corps releases about 25 million acre feet in an average runoff year. Snowmelt is a contributor to the water that needs to be released. There are two major locations and time frames that contribute to snowmelt: the first occurs from March to April when snow melts in Montana and the Dakotas and the second from May to July from the Mountains.

“They need to get rid of the water from the river in early spring because they know that snowmelt is coming,” Mackland says. “We’d really like to see a proactive instead of a reactive plan for snowmelt—something they can calculate. Let’s see them release the water as soon as they’re able to get it out of there.”

This year, the Corps did start releasing water earlier than previous years, on March 15, in anticipation of a larger snowpack. Mackland recognizes the agency’s efforts, but he still wants to see more.

River management is influenced by more than agricultural interest. In the past 15 years, $774 million was dedicated to fish and birds, compared with $80 million on operation and maintenance for the Missouri River and virtually zero funds were used for construction products, Waters says.

The Missouri River system serves a variety of stakeholders, including agriculture, barges and other navigation, recreation, endangered species and flood control, Kneuvean says.

It’s a careful balance trying to meet the needs of each stakeholder, especially when their needs sometimes oppose each other. No matter what, the Corps has to follow guidelines set by the Flood Control Authorization Act of 1944, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and other legal requirements.

Much of this is outlined in the Corps’ Master Manual, which was last revised in 2004 with minor additions and changes in 2006.

Missouri River management depends on levee systems to help keep water out of major metropolis areas and some farm districts.

“Congress has been looking at levee systems in Kansas City and approved a $453 million budget for levee modifications,” Kneuvean says.

While there are many levees in rural areas, they’re maintained in partnerships between government and private parties. In most cases, levees keep the river from spreading into areas where it could cause damage, but they also keep water from draining off fields—presenting another challenge.

“We used to see the water get out pretty quick, but now it doesn’t have a chance to evacuate,” Nail says. He put in two water pumps for about $175,000 and says they’ve paid for themselves in just three years by getting water off acres he would have otherwise lost.

“There are challenges when it comes to drawing water off of fields,” Kneuvean says. “It’s a double-edged sword—it’s hard to get crops in, then we went through a dry spell, and now they’re flooded again.

“The only way we can drive down risk is by working together. We have to continue to have the dialogue, have open and honest discussion about how we use water resources and what realistically can be done to reduce risk,” he adds.

For farmers, the consequences of flooding can be long-lasting.

“We’re still digging out of a hole of flooding in 2011—we had 2,500 acres destroyed,” Nail says. “We live and die by the river.”