SD governor urges better Missouri River management

By CHET BROKAW

Associated Press

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — Gov. Dennis Daugaard told a packed public hearing late Wednesday that the Army Corps of Engineers must improve the accuracy of its predictions of runoff into the Missouri River to avoid a repeat of this summer’s flooding in South Dakota and other states.

The corps needs to improve the way it forecasts runoff into the six Missouri River reservoirs by doing a better job of collecting information about the buildup of snow on the plains and Rocky Mountains, Daugaard said during the meeting. The corps held the hearing to take public comment on its plan to operate the Missouri River dams next year.

The governor said he believes flooding would have occurred this year even if the corps had realized earlier that runoff would reach record levels. But earlier action, he said, could have helped reduce the damage or at least given people more time to protect their homes and businesses against the high water.

“It’s not a damning of your activity for 2011. I don’t think any of us has the right to do it because it was a historic year,” Daugaard told corps officials. “But we want better, and you can be better, I’m sure.”

About 200 people attended the Wednesday night meeting in Pierre. The agency has held public meetings in Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas, Montana and North Dakota in recent days, and a final hearing is scheduled Thursday in Sioux City, Iowa.

Corps officials said they had the reservoirs at desired levels last spring, but a late buildup of snow in the Rocky Mountains and unexpectedly heavy rains in Montana and other upstream areas in May led to record runoff that made flooding unavoidable.

Several hundred homes in Pierre and Fort Pierre were damaged by the flooding, which also caused damage in other cities along the river. Emergency levees helped protect most residential areas from the rushing water, but some homes outside the levee system were heavily damaged while other homes were hurt by rising groundwater.

Daugaard said he supported North Dakota’s request to increase releases from Lake Sakakawea this fall to draw the lake down an extra 2.5 feet by next spring, which would create more room to store water if runoff exceeds expectations next year. He said he was disappointed to hear that the corps had rejected the North Dakota request.

Brig. Gen. John McMahon, the commanders of the corps’ northwestern division, said the corps has decided to draw the reservoirs down to the usual level next spring. But he said the agency will be flexible in managing the reservoir system and will aggressively release more water in the winter and spring if needed.

McMahon said corps officials are “sincerely sorry” about the damage caused by last summer’s flooding.

“We’re not trying to be enemies. We’re trying to be helpful and supportive through these trying times,” McMahon said.

Another corps official, Mike Swenson, said there is a low risk that next year will see flooding like this year.

“That’s not to say it can’t happen, but there is a low risk of repeat,” he said.

At another meeting in August, a crowd in Pierre booed when corps officials blamed the flooding on the record rains that fell upstream in May. Wednesday night’s crowd was more civil, with people applauding those who criticized the corps but not jeering the corps officials.

Gene Hawk, who lives near the river in Fort Pierre, said the corps should remember that Oahe Dam was built primarily for flood control. While the snowpack built up on the plains and in the mountains last spring, the corps was running only a small amount of water through the dams, he said.

“You know, snow melts. I don’t see how you could possibly not know that snow was there,” Hawk said.

Rodney Vizcarra, a physician whose house along the river was damaged, said the biggest problem was that the corps did not notify people of the impending flood until a day or two before it happened. Earlier notice would have given homeowners more time to build levees and sandbag walls to protect their houses, he said.

“One thing that cannot be argued is that the corps miserably failed in communication,” Vizcarra said.

At Tuesday night’s hearing in Bismarck, N.D., McMahon prompted an angry reaction when he said the agency could not eliminate flood risk, and that managing the risk “begins with individual responsibility for individual decisions about where you choose to live.”

Carolyn Hesford, of south Bismarck, said her home flooded even though it is a mile from the Missouri River. Her two daughters “spent every single day the first couple of weeks ... walking in water up to their waist,” Hesford said. “They were in muck and mud, and fish swimming in front of them.”

“We are not even on the river,” Hesford shouted at McMahon as audience members clapped. “And don’t tell me I should have picked a different place to live.”

McMahon said afterward that he understood the anger and frustration. His remark about where people chose to live was misinterpreted, he said.

“There’s always residual flood risk. You can never eliminate it totally,” he said. “People need to hear the naked truth. There is a shared responsibility associated with flood risk management, and part of that begins with where one individual chooses to live.”

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Associated Press writer Dale Wetzel contributed to this report from Bismarck, N.D.

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