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    Posted July 12, 2011 by
    Bismarck, North Dakota

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    How Long Will the Missouri River Mega-Flood Endure


    How Long Will the Missouri River Mega-Flood Endure?

    Will Access Come Soon Enough for Some Homeowners?


    July 12, 2011


    By Mark Armstrong


    Bismarck, ND...This morning at 8:00 a.m., for the first time in 12 days, the floodgates at Garrison Dam, 70 miles upstream, will ease back a bit.   The mega-floodwaters will drop from 140,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 135,000 cfs   That minor drop in the mega-flood will give little relief to the 650 homeowners who have been fighting various flood battles with the Missouri river since late May.  The last time a flow was at 135,000 cfs through Garrison was on June 10th when it was ramping up to its all-time high of 150,000 cfs on June 17th.  A normal rate for June or July, since the closing of the dams in the 1950's, would be around 20,000 cfs.  This 50-day mega-flood has caused destruction, displacement and no clear end in sight for many, if not most, who live along the Missouri river from Montana, through North and South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa and even to the states along the Gulf of Mexico.


    In Burleigh County, 654 homeowners in the flood evacuated areas north and south of the city of Bismarck are wondering when, and if, they can get into their homes before summer ends.  The Missouri river remains at major flood stage (19.13 feet this morning 7/12/2011) with no signs of being below flood stage in the next month and half.  Garrison dam is not scheduled to see "normal" releases anytime soon.  In fact, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers calls for gradually ramping down releases to a still-record release of 105,000 cfs starting on August 5th.   The last time Bismarck was below flood stage, at 16 feet, was when there was a release of 80,000 cfs prior to May 30th this year.


    Questions from Homeowners Fighting and Waiting


    There are approximately 650 homes that are in the voluntarily evacuated areas north and south of the city of Bismarck in Burleigh County that have been impacted by the mega-floodwaters of the Missouri river. Nearly all these homeowners evacuated the contents of their homes to higher ground, or higher levels in their homes.  Since May, a few of these homes have been lost on Hogue Island and elsewhere.  Some were abandoned by their owners and left to the floodwaters.  Some owners built protective ring dikes around their homes, hoped the electricity would stay on and have been boating to save their homes daily, sometimes traveling miles through the Missouri to reach their homes.  In some neighborhoods septic systems have failed causing putrid black waters to mix in some of slow-moving back channels.  Even though people can live in these areas, the stench and the bugs are already overwhelmingly, even though the hottest summer weather is not even here yet.  As these stinky waters slowly recede they often do not draw down because of the damming effects of roads, driveways and culverts, leaving behind stagnant, foul-smelling water areas that need to be pumped out.


    One homeowner who recently lost their electricity after fighting to save their home for over a month,  e-mailed me and wanted to know whether it was worth battling on given the unknowns ahead.  Lisa Burch wrote, "I haven't been able to find the Corps planned release for August 2011. As our homes are flooded (Westwood on the River, south of Bismarck) and we no longer have electricity, and are spending $100 a day putting gas in generators, I need to start planning on whether I buy a new home or try to keep fighting a little longer."


    Other homeowners wonder when they will have roads again to begin the rebuilding process.  Claudia Nelson Ballweber, whose home is surrounded by floodwaters north of Bismarck, wrote on my Facebook page, "Has the Corps given any indication yet of when we might see the river level drop to the 16 foot mark so people can begin planning for a return home to begin the clean-up process?"


    "We were so preoccupied with trying to clear out our house before the road disappeared that we couldn't remember what the flows were at specific heights," said Nelson Ballweber. "Just like all the other folks, it would be nice to know about when that might be."


    Even Bismarck Tribune reporter Chris Bjorke in his piece today about the "Dam releases to fall today" http://tinyurl.com/5sr5sjp tried to get some experts to figure out when that might be and what the Missouri river might look like at lower flows.  It is crap shoot at best for both answers.  Experts know the river will look different once Garrison gets back to normal releases.  When those normal releases (around 20,000 cfs) get here is anyone's guess.  Until it actually happens and what that actually happens is anyone's guess.


    Until the floodwaters begin to earnestly recede, homeowners must wait and calculate whether or not they can continue fighting for their homes.  Each day the record-breaking mega-flood for the 650 homeowners in Burleigh County is a nightmare of wondering how long they can hold out.


    Can It Happen Again?


    About the only way to answer that question is to answer how did we get to the mega-flood in the first place.  Kurt Webber has been emailing me a lot of data about various U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decisions and mapping out some of their data for me.  This week he saw an article carried in many newspapers asking the "Why Did It Happen?" question.  Kurt wrote,


    "If the Congress, Administration, and Public wants to plan for this kind of flooding then the Corps most increase the flood storage area of all the maintsem reservoirs.  Presently only 6%   16% = 22 percent of reservoir space is reserved for flooding. The total Missouri River System Storage reserved for flooding (Mainstem Dams) is only 73.3 - 57.0 = 16.3 million acre feet.  The May and June combined runoff total above Sioux City was 24.3 million acre feet, just short of the total annual runoff for the entire basin 24.8 million acre feet."


    Seems pretty simple in theory, make more reservoir space available to catch a record spring snow/rain event.  That is what the system was ORIGINALLY designed to do.  Trouble began when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Congress and the Administration began to insert other missions into that original mission.  With competing interests from recreation to downstream navigation to environmental concerns inserted into that original mission of flood control, the system of pure flood management took a back seat and politics/greed took a front seat.


    A mega-flood can happen again if there is not a change in philosophy and management quickly.  Right now everyone is blaming this year's calamity on the weather essentially.  Earlier today the Corps on its Facebook page said,


    "Runoff into the Missouri River Basin above Sioux City, IA during June was the highest single runoff month since the Corps began keeping detailed records in 1898. The previous record monthly runoff was 13.2 million acre feet in April 1952. June 2011 runoff above Sioux City was 13.8 maf"


    Part of the problem, as pointed out in my previous post, is the Corps does not consider weather events, only inflow data and uses only historical flows to the early 19th Century.  While 13.8 million acre feet for June may be a record in the last 113 years, it might not the highest we could see.  That takes looking back further into time with prediction tools that are available, just not currently being used by the Corps in their calculations.


    Meteorologist Mike Maguire said not looking at weather events further back in time is a fatal flaw in the Corps' formulas.  If you are looking at a 100-year flood, for example, you could miss bigger events, or not even understand the significance of the event you believe to be the 100-year event.  Maguire wrote,


    "The terms 100 year flood and/or 100 year weather events are also very misleading. They are also misused as a probability guide to determine the chances of the event occurring. Since we only have 100 years worth of accurate instrumental records, our sample size is very tiny compared to the length of time that would be needed for the data to reflect a realistic probability of occurrence for that event."


    We are clever people.  We built the dams on the Missouri river that saved us from a mega-flood for the last 58 years.  We were so confident in those dams that we allowed development to take place along the river in the traditional 100-year floodplain (that we defined).  Over the last 30 years there has been a development boom north and south of the city of Bismarck with beautiful riverfront homes and nearby subdivisions and developments in the beautiful areas near the river.  Boat ramps, parks, campgrounds and infrastructure was put in place because of the confidence in that 100-year flood prediction and the protection of the dams.  What if those formulas and predictions were based on data that was incomplete or changing?  How do we answer the question for landowners and homeowners, governments and property developers, "can it happen again?"

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