Riverwatch: Brigadier General McMahon: Master Manual guides regulation of Missouri River

We’ve been fighting the Flood of 2011 for nearly three weeks now. Throughout the basin, the losses to families and communities have been heart-wrenching and our hearts go out to all who have been impacted by this unfortunate and unprecedented event.

One of the most frequently asked questions we get in our call center is, “Why didn’t the Corps evacuate floodwaters sooner?” Simply put, the answer to that question is, “We did.” At the beginning of the runoff season we had the full capacity of our flood risk reduction storage available to us. The game-changer has been the prolonged, heavy rains we have received in Montana and in the Dakotas since mid-May.

The Missouri River main stem reservoir system, which spans 1770 miles and includes six dams and reservoirs, provides flood risk reduction for communities from Fort Peck, Mont. to St. Louis, Mo. It is operated in accordance with the Missouri River Master Manual.  The Master Manual includes a water control plan that helps guide how much water should be released, when, and for how long from the six reservoirs. It is based on hydrology models that consider variables like volume, timing, and the shape of snow and rainfall runoff, and is based on more than 100 years of historical runoff records (1898-2004).

In 1989, the Corps initiated a review of the Missouri River Master Manual in response to the first major drought the Basin had experienced since the system was built and the needs of communities along the River. Re-opening the manual provided an opportunity for the public to voice their views on how the Missouri River should be operated. It was a 14-year journey of study and debate on the long-term management of the river. The review entailed extensive and thorough scientific research and hundreds of public meetings. We received thousands of comments from various stakeholders, Congressional and State representatives, Tribes, interest groups and members of the general public throughout the basin.

The Master Manual was updated in 2004. The water control plan in the manual provides for the Corps to serve the purposes for which Congress authorized construction of the system.  These purposes include flood control, navigation, water supply, water quality, hydropower, irrigation, recreation, and fish and wildlife.  The Corps strives to balance operation of the system to serve these purposes. For the past year, the Corps has been operating the System solely for Missouri River flood risk reduction.

As required by the Endangered Species Act of 1973, during the course of the Master Manual Review and Update, the Corps consulted with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.  In its 2003 Amended Biological Opinion, the Service concluded that the Corps’ operation of the system jeopardized the continued existence of the endangered pallid sturgeon and two bird species.  However, the service provided an alternative to jeopardy that allows the Corps to continue to serve all of the authorized purposes.  In addition to several other elements, this alternative included modifications in reservoir releases.

In 2006, the Master Manual was again updated to reflect these flow modifications.  In accordance with the criteria in the manual, and in compliance with the Endangered Species Act, at no time during the past year has the system been operated for endangered or other native or introduced species. Our priority has been flood risk reduction.

Each fall, the Corps forecasts the regulation of the Missouri River main stem system with various runoff scenarios for the remainder of the current year, plus the following calendar year and publishes a draft  Annual  Operating Plan. We hold a series of public meetings in each state throughout the basin to solicit feedback on our planned operations. We use that input from the public when developing our Final Annual Operating Plan, which is typically finalized in December of every year.

During the spring, we hold another round of meetings to update the public on our operations. Public involvement and transparency are key components of our Annual Operating Plan. Further, monthly and weekly forecasts are completed as well as daily assessments.

These historic and unprecedented releases we have experienced in the basin have pushed us into unchartered territory with respect to releases. There is no doubt that the Missouri River will be a changed river following these historic flows. As the Corps conducts reviews of our emergency response efforts and management of the Missouri River during this historic flood event, we will be presented with yet another opportunity to solicit feedback from the public about our operations.

In the meantime, we remain committed to this flood fight. We’ve dispatched teams of experts all along the basin to construct temporary levees. We’ve issued millions of sandbags and numerous pumps to support local flood fight efforts, avoid loss of life, minimize damages and help impacted communities. We remain in close collaboration with city, county, state and federal agencies, the Tribes and Congressional representatives and we will continue to do everything in our ability to assist communities throughout the duration of the Flood of 2011.


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