The 2011 Missouri River flood ended about 6 months ago and it is one for the history books. Recently citizens, scientists and public officials met in St. Louis to consider how to respond to 2011's "unnatural flooding" along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. The event was hosted by the Water Protection Network, a coalition that works to promote environmentally and economically sound water policies. I represent the Missouri Sierra Club in that coalition.
One can expect reasoned debate and frank advice on how to coexist with the river. But how many times have citizens gathered to rue the fact that management of and development along the Missouri river is short-sighted and narrow-minded? We still have not acted on common-sense recommendations resulting from the 1993 flood.
Here in Missouri, we want it all from our namesake river. We want enough water in any season to float the meager navigation traffic on the river, we want narrow river corridors and high levees so we can build and plant in the floodplain, and we want few restrictions that would keep farm runoff from polluting the river.
The record-high runoff into the Missouri in 2011 is forcing us to face the fact that we can't have it all. Huge mainstream dams in the upper river didn't prevent flooding -- only reduced its severity. The flood of 1993 demonstrated that we can have flooding on the lower river based primarily on regional rainfall. Two-thirds of the river's total flow comes from tributaries entering below the dams.
We on the lower river can't keep looking for solutions based on changes in upstream states. We need our own.
So far, most of our political and social response to the 2011 flood seems more like an insistence on "don't make me change anything," with misplaced blame, distortion and a refusal to acknowledge limitations and change.
During the 2011 flood, endangered-species management was blamed. The facts disprove it, but the minority viewpoint persists, represented in proposed legislation that would remove fish and wildlife as an authorized purpose of the Missouri river.
The distortion continues, with misinformation about the Army Corp of Engineer's budget. Politicians and agricultural interest groups have cherry-picked figures from the Corps' budget to make it appear that a widely disproportionate amount is spent for environmental restoration and that a pittance goes to Missouri river-channel management and flood protection.
Specifically, claims have been made that $72 million had been requested in the 2012 budget for environmental restoration while just $6.1 million was allocated for operations and maintenance funds for the river. The Army Corps budget is nothing if not complicated, but in truth, the Corp spends about $110 million annually on Missouri River operations and maintenance. In addition, in 2011 the corps transferred some $118 million for use in emergency flood repair in the Missouri basin.
A refusal to accept limits and acknowledge the need for change can be seen in attempts to heap too much blame on the Army Corps's management of reservoir levels during early 2011. This argument claims that if only the Corp had released more water sooner, or stored more water longer, the flood could have been minimized. There are aspects of the Corps' data and management that bear review and criticism. But the fact is that in the spring of 2011 too much water was coming down the basin for the system to safely handle without major water releases. Not only was sheer volume an issue, but also the safety of the dams themselves. A sobering thought.
The unprecedented Missouri River flood was only part of 2011's extreme weather, which included multiple extreme floods, widespread droughts, wildfires, tornadoes and hurricanes. All of this made 2011 a phenomenal year for weather damage across the globe. Now 2012 has emerged with its own unseasonal weather hazards. Scientists admit it's difficult to predict how specific places will be affected by climate change, but frequency of extreme events in temperature and precipitation are expected. How should we manage the Missouri River if a flood like 2011 is not the extreme outlier event we wish it would be? If extremes are likely, then we need to plan for serious droughts as well as floods.
We should look for ways to reduce risk, while maximizing benefits. A big part of that can be to widen the functional floodplain in the lower river while reducing development and setting back levees. A wider functional floodplain can provide risk reduction as well as economic and environmental benefits. A "don't make me change" attitude will only set us up for future hazards. Let's hope citizen efforts will bring sanity to our river management.
Pufalt is conservation chair of the Missouri chapter of the Sierra Club.