SD urges change in Missouri River management plan

By CHET BROKAW

Associated Press

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota officials on Tuesday urged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to consider more changes in how it manages the Missouri River to reduce the chance of a repeat of last year’s extensive flooding.

During a public meeting in Pierre, state officials asked the corps to keep in mind that weather patterns tend to run in cycles, with wet conditions lasting more than one year. The corps should update its methods for predicting runoff in the river because the current model assumes the weather will quickly return to normal, said Garland Erbele, water rights director for the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

“Based on the historic records, we know that in wet conditions it tends to stay wet and in dry conditions it tends to stay dry,” Erbele told corps officials.

The corps last summer had to release unprecedented amounts of water through the six Missouri River dams to get rid of water from heavier than normal snowmelt in the mountains and Plains, as well as record rainfall in the spring and early summer in the upper Missouri River basin.

The record flows last year led to extensive flooding in the Pierre-Fort Pierre area in central South Dakota and in the Dakota Dunes area in southeastern South Dakota. Downstream in Iowa, Nebraska and Missouri, the high water caused damage to flood-control structures and hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland along the river.

Corps officials said a more normal mountain snowpack and little snow on the Plains have left the system in much better shape this year, with a lot of storage space available in the reservoirs for handling floodwater.

The risk of flooding caused by snowmelt is low, but some flooding could still be caused by heavy rain particularly in the lower basin, Mike Swenson of the corps said.

“It’s still early,” Swenson told a crowd of more than 60 people at the Pierre meeting. “We have to continue to monitor things in the basin. It’s a big basin, and things can change rapidly.”

Tuesday’s meeting was one of a series of river management meetings the corps is holding throughout the Missouri River basin.

Erbele, presenting a letter from the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Department of Game, Fish and Parks, said South Dakota also believes the corps should consider changing flood-control restraints in downstream states so more water can be released from upstream reservoirs in wet periods.

In addition, a study of changes made in river channels by last year’s flooding should be extended upstream so officials in central South Dakota can identify areas that could cause winter flooding in Pierre and Fort Pierre when ices builds up, Erbele said.

Erbele also said South Dakota hopes the corps can maintain steady or rising water levels in Oahe Reservoir this spring to help baitfish reproduce. A lot of smelt, a prey fish that’s a key food source for walleyes, were flushed through the dam last year, but the population can recover if the baitfish have a successful spawn, he said.

Jody Farhat, chief of Missouri River water management for the corps, said last weekend’s heavy rains that accompanied severe storms in Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas caused a reduction in releases from the upstream dams, which should help maintain water levels for fish spawning in those lakes.

Pierre Mayor Laurie Gill urged the corps to pay attention to recommendations made by an independent panel that reviewed river management in the wake of last year’s floods. That review, issued in December, said the flood was caused by record runoff and that the corps did what it could. But it also said management changes, including better monitoring of snow on the Plains, could help avoid a repeat.

“We really need and expect to see continued pressure to examine the options for the entire Missouri River basin,” Gill said.

Another study released last week said more flood storage space in the reservoirs would have reduced, but not prevented, last year’s floods.

Farhat said Tuesday that if levels in the large reservoirs had been 6 feet lower, flows could have been reduced substantially from the reservoirs during last summer’s flooding. But she said even those lower flows would have still caused extensive damage and would have continued long into the fall.

Rodney Vizcarra, a physician whose house upstream from Fort Pierre was heavily damaged last year, said he’s bothered because the corps did not change its management of the river much this year.

“I don’t have any confidence they’ve learned the lessons from past,” Vizcarra said.

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