A high-ranking Army Corps of Engineers officer is defending his agency against complaints that mismanagement of dams along the Missouri River has contributed to flooding that threatens communities and farmland.
“I have the best dam safety engineers in the country here in this room, and in this district, and if they’re not worried, I’m not worried,” said Col. Robert Ruch, commander of the corps’ Omaha District — where decisions on Missouri River management take place.
He was responding to concerns up and down the 2,341-mile river about the effects of massive volumes of water that Army engineers are releasing from the Missouri’s six major dams. The record releases, which have not yet reached their maximum, have breached levees, triggered evacuations and spurred furious planning in the St. Louis region. The high flows are scheduled to continue into August.
Last week, a unified Missouri congressional delegation invited an Army Corps general to their state with a pointed message from Missourians “who believe this disaster could have been mitigated with better planning and coordination on the part of the Corps of Engineers.”
Upriver, anger has risen with the water. Two former South Dakota governors, both Republicans, accused the corps last week of failing to keep flexibility to handle the spring rains and heavy snowmelt.
One of the former governors, Bill Janklow, characterized the corps as ‘slow-witted.” Another ex-governor, Mike Rounds, asserted in an interview Friday that corps brass ought to be held accountable for rising water threatening his state and his own home.
“I’m muddy, I’m wet,” said Rounds, after returned from checking on water lapping at his evacuated home, near Pierre.
“You can’t come into May with so much water in the upper reservoirs knowing that you have significant snowpack on the ground and assuming it will not rain,” said Rounds, who left office in January after two terms.
Thwe Corps maintains it was unusually heavy rains in the upper basin of the Missouri River, now the scheduled releases of water from the resevoirs, that are the source of the problem. Corps officials are routinely referring to the heavy May rains as “the game changer”.
At Gavins Point Dam in eastern South Dakota, the major dam nearest to St. Louis, the flow was turned up this weekend to 145,000 cubic feet per second, and is scheduled to reach a peak of 150,000 on Tuesday. This time of year, the river typically flows through the dam at a velocity of around 30,000 cubic feet per second.
In an opinion column last week in the Post-Dispatch that got heavy readership along the river, Bernard Shanks, an author and former U.S. Geological Survey official, offered a frightening scenario of dam failure. He theorized a “domino effect” of catastrophic failures of dams more than a half-century old, triggering a flood of biblical proportions that would consume bridges and split the nation in two.
In an interview, Shanks, who also headed the Washington state Fish and Wildlife Department, said that he has studied Missouri River dams throughout his career and is writing a book about them. He has not been involved in their operation.
“I don’t want to frighten people, but I want them to appreciate that dams are like our bridges and highways that are falling apart,” he said.
Shanks’ article was read in Omaha, too. Ruch began his remarks at an evening briefing with state, local and tribal leaders by asserting that he had visited all six dams recently and personally vouched for their integrity.
John Bertino, chief of the engineering division in the Omaha District, said that seismic studies were conducted at the dams as recently as 2005 and that an intense monitoring program is under way. He said that the corps meets annually with state emergency management officials along the river so that “everyone is prepared and they know what to do” in the event of dam failure.
Speaking of Shanks’ warnings, Ruch said: “There’s virtually no chance of overtopping those dams” — the biggest threat. “This is just not a scenario that’s going to play out.”
Ruch summed up his biggest concern about the unfolding water drama in a single word: “Precipitation. That is 100 percent of what I’m concerned with,” he said, echoing the worry of St. Louis area planners.
Ruch added that he is eager to get beyond this high-water season to look at how to improve the aging levee system. He declined to directly address an assertion last week by U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., that an earmark moratorium in Congress has led to difficulties in getting funds for levee repair.
“Are you trying to get me to touch the third rail there?” Ruch joked.
“We really need to figure how things need to be operated better. But right now, I’m concerned about people’s lives and property,” he said.