America's largest rivers have wreaked havoc on the Midwest this spring, inundating towns and farmland from South Dakota to Louisiana. Nature is responsible for most of it — huge snow packs in Colorado and Wyoming, and historic levels of rain. But some of the flooding isn't natural; it's controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers.
On the Corps' call, hundreds of miles of farmland and parts of Louisiana were flooded to spare large cities farther down the river. The engineers also decided to keep water behind the dams of the Missouri River in the north to help out residents along the Mississippi. Those reservoirs are now dangerously close to capacity, and the Corps has just made another tough choice.
Saturday morning, for the first time in history, the Corps opened all the emergency outlets on six dams beyond their maximum recommended flow levels to keep the dams from collapsing.
It's hard enough to choose who gets wet and who stays dry. Harder still, some say, are bureaucratic rules that require the Corps to consider priorities other than flood control.
Who Gets Wet
Many homes and farms along the Missouri River are expected to be under at least some water. Farmer Don Diltz of Glenwood, Iowa, was one of the first to feel the effects earlier this week.
"Flooding is a part of life down here; you take that and accept it and move on," he says. "But this is unique. Most floods come and they leave; this flood's coming and it's going to stay for six months."
Jody Farhat, the chief of the Missouri River Basin Water Management Office in Omaha, Neb., is in charge of water management for the area.
"It's difficult to see the impacts of these historic releases on individuals and communities," Farhat says. "My staff and I are making those release decisions based on the information coming in every day."
These decisions are also made according to the Missouri Water Control Manual, referred to as the "master manual." It's a handbook written by the Corps with input from Congress, and it dictates the Corps' priorities. Some are easy to follow, like flood control, but others are more difficult to navigate, like keeping reservoirs full even when there's heavy snowpack, so tourists can take boats out and power companies can use water flow.
Too Many Priorities
The manual makes life tough for the Corps, which is bound by law to follow its recommendations, former Corps head Mike Parker says.
"It's a political document," he says. "Several years ago, Congress decided you have a lot of interests out there, and these interests got together and said, 'We're not getting represented.' So instead of having navigation and flood control as being the two primary things that the Corps was looking at, they had a list of eight things that they had to consider."
In addition to navigation and flood control, this list of priorities includes irrigation, water supply, hydropower, fish and wildlife, recreation and water quality. Parker says that some of these priorities run counter to one another.
"If the Corps only had to take care of navigation and flood control, I guarantee you those levels [in the Missouri River reservoirs] would have been much lower," he says.
The choices the Corps has made in recent months have affected millions of lives along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. Parker says that the decision to open the Morganza Spillway in Louisiana last month came at a cost.
"Gen. Mike Walsh had to stand in front of people and say, 'People, I'm opening these floodgates and by the way, I'm going to flood your homes. We're going to flood your businesses; we're sorry.'"
"If these were easy choices, you wouldn't be interviewing me today," Parker says.
The Army Corp of Engineers expects to hit an all-time high with the release of 160,000 cubic feet of water per second from the Oahe and Big Bend dams early Sunday morning.
LAURA SULLIVAN, host: America's largest rivers have wreaked havoc throughout the South and Midwest this spring, inundating towns and farmland from South Dakota to Louisiana. Nature is responsible for most of it, thanks to huge winter snowpacks and historic spring rain. But some of the flooding is not, in fact, natural. It's controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Fire in the hole.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Fire in the hole.
(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)
SULLIVAN: That's the sound of the Corps blowing up a levee along the Mississippi River last month, and releasing water that swamped hundreds of miles of Louisiana farmland to save the cities downriver. The big problem now is up north, along the Missouri River in South Dakota and Iowa.
The Corps had been holding water back in reservoirs to protect people and businesses downstream. But those reservoirs are now full. And with three to five inches of rain forecast this weekend, the Army Corps has for the first time in history opened all emergency outlets on six dams beyond their maximum recommended flows.
Many homes and farms along the Missouri River are already underwater. Farmer Don Diltz in Glenwood, Iowa, was one of the first to feel the effects.
DON DILTZ: This isn't something normal. This isn't something that I believe any generation before us has ever seen.
SULLIVAN: Diltz says his farm will be covered in water for at least six months. The decision, who gets wet and who stays dry, is one of the toughest the Army Corps of Engineers has to make.
Mike Parker was assistant Army secretary who oversaw the Corps in 2000. He says he never had to deal with anything like this.
MIKE PARKER: Well, it's just unprecedented, the amount flooding. And it's unprecedented as to the amount of damage that's been done. The system in the Mississippi River worked exactly like it should have. They flooded farmland, which is a terrible thing, but they didn't flood towns.
SULLIVAN: So when you look at sort of the Missouri River coming down and then flowing into the Mississippi and then the Mississippi flowing down, this is, I mean, this is...
PARKER: Well, the Missouri is different.
SULLIVAN: The Missouri is different?
PARKER: Well, Missouri is a political animal.
SULLIVAN: How so?
PARKER: And that is much, much different. Several years ago, Congress decided it had a lot of these interests out there. And these interests got together and said, we're not being represented. And so they put together - they started a process, which wound up being the Missouri Master Manual, and it was finalized in 2004. So instead of having navigation and flood control as being the two primary things that the Corps was looking at, they had a list of eight things that they had to consider: irrigation, water supply, hydropower, fish and wildlife, recreation and water quality. Well, some of these eight things are counter to each other.
SULLIVAN: A lot of the folks that I've talked to up in South Dakota feel very passionately that the Corps should have been releasing the water all along, that it shouldn't have gotten to the point where these reservoirs are about to break.
PARKER: Then the master manual should have taken that into consideration. If the Corps only had to take care of navigation and flood control, I guarantee you those levels would have been much lower.
SULLIVAN: We have heard that one of the reasons that they didn't open the floodgates up in South Dakota was because they didn't want to add any more water into the Mississippi.
PARKER: Yeah. I mean, we're hurting down there, and you have to understand. General Mike Walsh had to make a decision to open the floodgates at Organza. When he opened those floodgates, he had to stand in front of people and say, people, I'm opening these floodgates. And by the way, I'm going to flood all of you when I do that. We're sorry. These are the choices. Now, none of these are easy choices. If it were easy, we wouldn't - you wouldn't be interviewing me today.
SULLIVAN: That's Mike Parker, formerly the assistant secretary of the US Army overseeing the US Army Corps of Engineers and currently head of the lobbying firm Welch Resources. Thank you so much for joining us.
PARKER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.