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Before next big one, make flood control a priority

It’s not just an act of nature.

Unless you’re a trained hydrologist, 100,000 cubic feet of water might not mean a lot.

It was the amount of water released per second from the Gavins Point Dam in South Dakota to ease pressure from heavy runoff and the collapse of another dam in Nebraska. This happened before last month’s flooding demolished levees, wiped out farms and submerged small towns in Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri.

To put it in perspective, 100,000 cubic feet per second is the average volume of water at Niagara Falls during tourist season. That’s what was headed our way.

All of this spawns various narratives about what went wrong and what, if anything, can be done to stop the next big one that everyone says is coming on the Missouri River.

Some said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was faced with no good options. Others said the bad weather was concentrated in Nebraska and that runoff south of Gavins Point contributed to most of the flooding.

These statements are not completely accurate. At the point of crisis, such as the collapse of Nebraska’s Spencer Dam, the Corps is faced with few options other than increasing water flows. Spencer Dam, by the way, flows into the river above Gavins Point.

But those who see the Corps as a victim of fate should understand that the lack of options also are because of its management of the river, which since 2004 has made flood control less of a priority. The Corps holds large amounts of water in reservoirs, a move that benefits endangered species during flooding season but proves disastrous to farming and river communities.

Midwestern governors met last week to decry the slow pace of levee repairs, but there are things the Corps can do fairly quickly to improve flood control. Releasing more water in the winter would create storage capacity for the next spring crisis. The Corps could consider restoring wing-dikes and other infrastructure that is designed to stabilize banks and push water to the center of the river channel.

That was how the river was managed when the current system of upstream dams first was constructed.

The other option is for the government to buy “flowage easements” from landowners to move levees back and create a larger flood plain for excess water. St. Joseph attorney Dan Boulware, in a lawsuit on behalf of flooded landowners, successfully argued that the government’s lack of flood control amounts to the taking of private property.

When it floods, and that flood is because of river management, then the government essentially takes its easement without paying for it. The price, as we saw last month, is paid by the farmer, landowner and small-town resident.

Sooner or later, the Corps of Engineers will face more tough choices. We don’t deny that. But don’t kid yourself into thinking it has no choices.

St. Joseph News-Press