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The Intentional Flooding of America's Heartland 477

Posted by timothy
from the best-laid-dams dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "Joe Herring writes that sixty years ago, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began the process of taming the Missouri by constructing massive dams at the top to moderate flow to the smaller dams below, generating electricity while providing desperately needed control of the river's devastating floods. But after about thirty years of operation, as the environmentalist movement gained strength throughout the seventies and eighties, the Corps received a great deal of pressure to include specific environmental concerns into their Master Water Control Manual, the 'bible' for the operation of the dam system, as preservation of habitat for at-risk bird and fish populations soon became a hot issue among the burgeoning environmental lobby. The Corps began to utilize the dam system to mimic the previous flow cycles of the original river, holding back large amounts of water upstream during the winter and early spring in order to release them rapidly as a spring pulse. 'Whether warned or not, the fact remains that had the Corps been true to its original mission of flood control, the dams would not have been full in preparation for a spring pulse,' writes Herring. 'The dams could further have easily handled the additional runoff without the need to inundate a sizable chunk of nine states.' The horrifying consequence is water rushing from the dams on the Missouri twice as fast as the highest previous releases on record while the levees that protect the cities and towns downstream were constructed to handle the flow rates promised at the time of the dam's construction."
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The Intentional Flooding of America's Heartland

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  • Re:News Flash (Score:4, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 26, 2011 @07:55AM (#36575536)

    Move out of the flood zones or buy flood insurance. Its no different than the people that blamed the Army Corps when New Orleans flooded. Wake up people, you're living below sea level (New Orleans) or living in the 100 year flood plain (Midwest). What did you really think was going to happen?

    I live there, I have flood insurance. My insurance company wont cover a single cent because the flood is man made. Now what smart ass?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 26, 2011 @08:13AM (#36575634)

    Can be found here.. http://www.dnr.mo.gov/env/wrc/docs/MasterManualMarch2006.pdf

  • by jamie (78724) * Works for Slashdot <jamie@slashdot.org> on Sunday June 26, 2011 @08:14AM (#36575646) Journal

    Who the hell is Joe Herring and why should I trust anything he writes? Did Slashdot review his scholarship here and give it a stamp of approval, or was it just put up on the website, leaving it to the readers to decide whether it's B.S. or not?

    No qualifications or expertise are claimed for Joe Herring on the website. In fact no information on his background is given except that he is "from Omaha, NE." This is highly unusual for a publication that hopes to be taken seriously. We don't even know if that is his real name.

    We are left to judge the value of this Joe Herring essay by his previous contributions [americanthinker.com] and by the reliability and reputation of the website that publishes his work.

    Joe Herring is, in short, a right-wing nut.

    He claims all leftists [americanthinker.com] -- all! -- want to overthrow the Constitution: "The continuum on the left that ranges from the 'wouldn't it be nice if we all just smiled' types to the hardcore authoritarian communists may disagree about methods, but sadly, all agree on one thing: if their utopia is to come about, the Constitution -- and the form of government derived from it -- must be replaced with...something."

    He says the Nazis were left-wingers [americanthinker.com]: "The Left will not willingly lay claim to the true legacy of socialism, so we will have to hang it around their necks."

    He believes that the true goal of health care reform, renewable-energy subsidies, and regulations on Wall Street is for "the left" to seize power and exterminate half of the human race. Really [americanthinker.com]: "As the federal government asserts control over health care, energy production, and the financial markets, the trinity of power is within the left's grasp. Unless driven back from their goals -- and quickly -- the likelihood grows daily that more than four billion of our 'species' will be joining the table scraps and yard clippings on the compost pile."

    He thinks the problem with Politifact's [politifact.com] 2009 Lie of the Year, "death panels," is that the right wasn't lying hard enough [americanthinker.com]: "To describe this board as a 'death panel,' as Rush Limbaugh has, is to underestimate its power and misconstrue its purpose."

    And five minutes with Google reveals that American Thinker is a source that, shall we say, lends no additional credibility to Joe Herring's contributions. Take global warming as a typical example. They printed essays claiming to have found a "smoking gun" that disproves global warming (wrong [skepticalscience.com]). Then they found another single argument that by itself disproves global warming [americanthinker.com] (still wrong [skepticalscience.com]). They argue that global warming is a Nazi lie [americanthinker.com].

    This "intentional flooding" piece looks like yet another right-wing hit job on leftism. I would be happy to entertain the idea that misguided environmentalism is partially to blame for one disaster or another, but I would like to hear a reasoned argument from someone who's not a nut.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 26, 2011 @08:18AM (#36575670)

    "'Whether warned or not, the fact remains that had the Corps been true to its original mission of flood control, the dams would not have been full in preparation for a spring pulse,'"

    There's another aspect. Over time people have learned that if you completely moderate the annual flow of a river by flood control, the channels will silt up, whereas if you have a higher peak flow in the spring, the channels get flushed out. You may say "big deal, let them silt up", but allowing the channels to silt up means the channel itself has less capacity to contain the river's peak flows (less cross-sectional area), and there is a tendency for the bottom of the channel to get shallower, meaning that when the flood waters come, the levees on the banks are easier to overtop. Alternatively you can build those levees ever higher, the river bed silts up some, you build the levees higher again, and eventually the river gradient (slope) is reduced so much that when a levee failure does happen, the bottom of the river bed is well above the floodplain, and the whole thing drains out onto the floodplain even more catastrophically. This is what happens in some parts of China because of many centuries of levee building -- the river is perched high above the floodplain (e.g., the lower parts of the Yellow River [wikipedia.org]).

    Maintaining something that emulates the natural seasonal flow of the river in a moderated way is an important technique to maintain the system over the long-term in a more manageable state than if you adopt the principle to contain absolutely everything at all times and all circumstances. Peak spring flow flushes the system out. It's not a bunch of idealistic environmentalist/hippies constraining the engineers, it's the engineers themselves realizing the limitations of their previous approach, and that if they ignore what the river does over the long term, it will get harder and harder to control and eventually they'll lose the battle anyway. It's better to understand how the system works and adapt to it.

    In short, don't believe a politician knows how the hell to manage a river system, or that they care much about what their decisions today will mean 20 or 50 years down the line, rather than the next election. You'd think a former history teacher would have a sense of perspective on these things. Blaming it on "environmentalists" is just a cheap political ploy.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 26, 2011 @08:20AM (#36575684)

    Every time a huge development went in down by the river, the Corps was against it, but money talks and the city and county commissioners approved the measure, drooling over the taxes they'd get from million dollar houses on 150,000 dollar lots.

    I have observed that many times, real estate developers and county or city commissioners are one and the same - or at least closely tied together.

    Most of the time on the local level, people who go into public office are doing so to help their personal and business interests. Most of my local politicians up to the state level are business people - and it's unsurprising, to me anyway, the things that business gets away with.

  • Re:News Flash (Score:2, Informative)

    by Charliemopps (1157495) on Sunday June 26, 2011 @08:24AM (#36575702)
    Don't live in a flood plain moron.
  • Re:Too Many (Score:3, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 26, 2011 @08:27AM (#36575722)

    (I'm from Missouri/Kansas) In case you're wondering, there are FEWER people living in the affected areas because so many people have moved out of the country and small towns to large cities which sprawl far away from the rivers. In my grandparents' town of 250, there used to be about 1000 living there. In KC, there is never any new development on the rivers except for casino "riverboats."

    There may be problems caused by immigration, but flooding on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers isn't one of them. Unless you say that all the farming that happens in the midwest shouldn't happen....

  • Re:News Flash (Score:5, Informative)

    by berberine (1001975) on Sunday June 26, 2011 @08:37AM (#36575784) Homepage

    Move out of the flood zones or buy flood insurance. Its no different than the people that blamed the Army Corps when New Orleans flooded. Wake up people, you're living below sea level (New Orleans) or living in the 100 year flood plain (Midwest). What did you really think was going to happen?

    I live there, I have flood insurance. My insurance company wont cover a single cent because the flood is man made. Now what smart ass?

    I moved to Western Nebraska several years ago. Nearly everyone along the Platte River in town is a business. Those in houses are 4 blocks or more from the river. In order to buy a house near the Platte River, you were required to buy flood insurance. Some folks I know have been told by their insurance companies that if/when their houses flood it won't be covered because they knowingly moved onto a flood plain.

    Also, keep in mind that the Platte River doesn't flood every year here. Sometimes, there is a little flooding, but it never even gets near the businesses along the river and rarely goes out far enough to be a concern to houses. We have had a Spring that was unusually rainy and we are just now getting the snow melt from the Rockies.

  • Re:Red herring (Score:5, Informative)

    by Wyatt Earp (1029) on Sunday June 26, 2011 @09:39AM (#36576160)

    That is a ton of garbage.

    Hoover Dam, for one, was built almost entirely by Depression era American citizens, the Manhattan Project had some foreign born persons in technical leadership positions, but it wasn't just a theoretical operation, three major sites and 30 secondary sites were constructed by US workers so the whole thing would work.

    127 German scientists from Operation Paperclip worked on the US military and civilian rocket program, out of roughly 5600 total scientists.

    As for Americans not being able to build anything durable, how do you explain the longevity of systems like the Boeing 737, 747, Abrams tank, Nimitz class aircraft carrier, the Chevy 350 small block engine, the GM 3.8 liter V-6 (aka Buick Fireball/Buick V6), F-15, 1911A1 pistol, the Jeep, the Intel x86 architecture, the original Macintosh, the IBM PC, etc

  • Re:Too Many (Score:4, Informative)

    by Wyatt Earp (1029) on Sunday June 26, 2011 @09:45AM (#36576184)

    You've never been along the Missouri River in North Dakota or South Dakota if you think over population or growth are why people live in that flood plain.

    http://maps.google.com/maps?q=pierre+sd&hl=en&sll=48.23251,-101.296273&sspn=0.200333,0.429153&z=12 [google.com]
    Thats the capital of South Dakota and neighboring city, the capital has been there since about 1886, the neighboring city was an American Indian site back to about 1700, white settlement since about 1810, right down river of the Oahe Dam.

    While about 25,000 people live in the area there, it's not overbuilt or over populated.

  • by jmorris42 (1458) * <jmorris@b[ ].org ['eau' in gap]> on Sunday June 26, 2011 @10:03AM (#36576272)

    > I suppose the fishing and tourism industry have largely similar interest as the
    > "environmentalists" as far as the water levels.

    Somebody didn't read the article before opening their hole. The shipping industry hates the green river management because it makes the river unsafe for navigation for large parts of the year. The original design called for enough flow to allow shipping year around. The greens want the river to flood in the spring (just not enough to bust levees, that was a mistake caused by their policy not the policy itself... at least as stated) and run low later in the year to follow natural patterns closer. To ensure a spring flood they held back too much water during the winter and when the spring rains and snow melt came stronger than expected they lacked the capacity to hold all of the water, forcing them to release at rates the levees could not hold back from the towns downstream. That is the charge against the Corps in a single sentence and it is pretty sound.

    The mission of the system was changed in ways it was not designed for and no attempt was made to remake it to handle the new mission it was given. Failure was a given at that point just as certainly as when NASA ignored the manufacturers warnings about the thermal specs on Challenger's O-Rings.

  • by cratermoon (765155) on Sunday June 26, 2011 @10:10AM (#36576318) Homepage
    That was also the first thought that came to my mind. I'd mod you up +1 Insightful if I could. The scaremongering anti-environmentalist rant is trying to divert any attention from the question of what would happen to the economies of those states should the ecosystem collapse.
  • Re:News Flash (Score:5, Informative)

    by Albanach (527650) on Sunday June 26, 2011 @10:56AM (#36576588) Homepage

    Are you sure? Who told you this, the Feds?

    I don't know what state you're in, but here's a helpful document from the South Dakota Department of Labor and Regulation:
    http://dlr.sd.gov/news/releases11/nr060311_flood_insurance.pdf [sd.gov]

    It states:

    "FEMA has responded to a commonly asked question with the following statement: If you already have flood insurance, policies under the National Flood Insurance Program cover flood damages to insured buildings and contents, whether caused by man-made events such as an intentional opening of spillways or breaching of levees, or whether simply caused by a natural flooding event."

    That directly contradicts what you are telling us. Perhaps you should speak to FEMA and clarify things, as I think you are mistaken about your coverage.

  • Re:News Flash (Score:4, Informative)

    by BroadwayBlue (811404) on Sunday June 26, 2011 @11:03AM (#36576626)

    It would seem that FEMA has clarified a distinction of "man-made" vs. "man-controlled" floods.

    http://www.yankton.net/articles/2011/06/17/community/doc4dface08e4c1f621282576.txt

    As for calls to move out of a floodplain, in general I agree. Assuming the consumer has perfect knowledge then this is a fair criticism. But flood policy in the US is not intended to prevent development within identified floodplains. In fact, if we did not want any development within the floodplain then there would be no NFIP, banks would do their own independent evaluation of risk exposure for a property, and real-estate disclosure forms would cover more than just the 100-year floodplain. But instead homeowners are not properly advised of the complexities of home ownership and the system is intentionally designed to keep it this way. I believe that people should be held accountable for their own decisions but this is premised on perfect access to information and sufficient educational opportunities. There are many forces that work against this, though, so how harsh to be on people that make poor decisions, or good decisions that later get trumped by Nature, is a tough call.

    But the fact remains that the NFIP is a program designed to enable development within the floodplain in addition to an insurance model that theoretically paid for itself. (Of course it was noted years ago that the NFIP funds were nowhere near sufficient to adequately pay for the exposure covered by the policies it issued. Florida as an insurer of last resort was/is in the same boat; ultimately we the people back the policies.)

    I think we all know that what is "right" and what is political reality are two different things. As an engineer & government official who has worked in this field for over 10 years I find much of it frustrating. It's all about balance, and in general I've found that a member of the public's thoughts on the subject tend to align with which side of that cut-off line they are on.

  • Not the Corps Fault (Score:3, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 26, 2011 @11:08AM (#36576662)

    I live in North Dakota and my dad Travels to Montana often. There is water everywhere in ND and Montana. We have never, and I repeat, NEVER seen water anything like this. The rain and the snow pack these last two years have been incredible.

    The fields are so wet many farmers have simply not planted their crops. This is coming from an area that for the majority of my life has been about 1 inch of rain away from being declared technically a desert (and in the drought years in the late 80's it was under the 7 inches of precip for 12 months).

    Everything is flooding up here, the Missouri river, the Mouse River and all their tributaries. There is water being released from the Spillway on the Garrison Dam now. This is the spillway that was 1/4 mile away from the river on the river side just 5 years ago, this is the Spillway that had never been used since the Dam was built in 1953. I was just there a couple weeks ago. That river is full, and there is water coming out of the Rocky Mountains right now that is flowing more CFM than what they are releasing out of the Damn. This is as controlled as it can get.

    There used to be 8 ways to get to my parents house, right now there is 1 as the rest of the roads are underwater (and we are 50 miles from the Missouri river, this is just slews and low areas accumulating rain water). Areas that I have never seen water in are now 8 foot deep lakes.

    Just something to keep in mind. ND has been trying to get the Corps to hold back more water for over a decade as one of our main fisheries, the Missouri river, was down to the original river channel. The corps never listened and never held the water back, Mother Nature decided to give us all the water we could ever want, then she forgot to stop.

    I have been raised to hate the way the Corps treat the river all my life, but in this instance they are doing everything that can be done to save as much property and as many lives as they can.

  • by goodmanj (234846) on Sunday June 26, 2011 @11:44AM (#36576878)

    Agree. "Says Who". The most important sentence in this article is the following:

    The Corps began to utilize the dam system to mimic the previous flow cycles of the original river, holding back large amounts of water upstream during the winter and early spring in order to release them rapidly as a "spring pulse."

    There is no evidence presented that this is true, no citation, no quotes, nothing.

  • by TechnicalPenguin (723245) on Sunday June 26, 2011 @12:41PM (#36577248) Homepage

    From reading the article, it sounds like the major cause of the flooding was not using the flood controls in the dam system but rather releasing water at twice the previous rate (150,000 ft^3 verse a peak of 75,000ft^3) which was not planned for in the downstream levies.

    The flood controls were used, but the system was overwhelmed with water. Extra water from melting snow and some ill-timed thunderstorms filled the reservoirs to capacity, forcing them to release more water more quickly than normal. This led to a sort of domino effect where downstream reservoirs would then have the same problem, with the same solution. They did try to hold back the water, if only to give people downstream time to prepare, but there was just too much water going into the system too fast and it eventually had to go somewhere just as fast.

  • Re:Too Many (Score:5, Informative)

    by riverat1 (1048260) on Sunday June 26, 2011 @02:42PM (#36577854)

    The regional predictions I've seen from the "AGW folks" predict more drought in the Southern Midwest like Texas and Oklahoma but not necessarily in the Upper Midwest and Northern Rockies. On top of that having a drought doesn't mean you can't have flooding. One or two big rainstorms that cause a big flood won't break a drought. It takes many normal rainstorms spread out over time to do that. Even deserts have their occasional flash floods.

    From what I've heard this flooding is due to a cold wet spring (driven largely by the La Nina that's ending) causing well above average snow packs that are late in melting plus heavier than normal rainfall (which helps the snow melt faster when it falls on it). I'm not sure the Corps of Engineers could have let enough water out of their reservoirs to avoid flooding although they might have been able to moderate it somewhat.

    The flooding in Minot, ND has no relation to the Missouri flooding. The Souris River originates and flows back in to Canada into the Assiniboine River. What I heard is it's caused by heavy rain on top of already saturated soil.

  • by Required Snark (1702878) on Sunday June 26, 2011 @02:48PM (#36577890)
    By the way, who is this bozo Herring? i looked him up on Google, and all I got was "Author, Husband, Father, Grandfather and avid golfer. Rabid Husker football fan as well. I'm a proud Constitutional Conservative in the mold of Reagan."

    So his credentials are that he is a "Constitutional Conservative". No civil engineering or technology background? Did he ever work in water management? I did find books on Amazon on wildlife management by Joe Herring from 1962, so that info is about 50 years out of date. It's not clear if this is the same guy. As far as we know, he has absolutely no meaningful qualifications.

    So this is an opinion piece based on political ideology, not facts. I have observed that when died in the wool conservatives make arguments about technical subjects, they are completely fact free. Why do they need facts, when their political philosophy tells them that their uninformed opinion is God's absolute truth?

    This flood has similar characteristics to large wildfires. We know that there are "natural disasters" that overwhelm any attempt at human control.We also know that human intervention can make these events worse. "Protecting" forests by suppressing natural fires makes larger more destructive fires inevitable. Farming and flood control alter the landscape, and certainly have an impact on these large rare events.

    I'm not familiar with flooding, so I can't comment on the impact of human intervention on this disaster. I do know that Herring says nothing about the issue, but is using this as a cynical opportunity to blame environmentalists (i.e. damn hippies). His piece is political propaganda masquerading as a rational critique. It's reasonable to have this on Slashdot, but don't pretend that it's objective or has any factual contents.

  • Re:Red herring (Score:4, Informative)

    by jbengt (874751) on Sunday June 26, 2011 @05:00PM (#36578748)

    What surprised me is that the people who originally lived in new orleans 100+ years ago because it was a nice smooth flat place found out why it was like that when it flooded the first spring. Instead of getting a clue and moving somewhere else, they just kept building there right up to today.

    While I think that re-building below sea-level is short-sighted, your characterizations are inaccurate.
    Those who originally lived in New Orleans (which was 200+ years ago) lived on the high ground of the natural levee formed by the banks of the Mississippi (The shape of that is how New Orleans got the nickname "the Crescent City") It was not a nice, smooth flat place in the floodplain.
    After some time, the idea that the swamps would be fertile farmland if they could be drained was realized by a French engineer that invented the big pumps. Of course, the tenant farmers then lived in the lowlands that were previously swamps, and were periodically flooded out. Over time, that population increased, and eventually grew into a city.
    An unfortunate side effect of draining the swamps was that the land actually shrunk and settled as the water was pulled out, gradually dropping the elevation of the land.
    To protect from flooding, levees were built along the river to contain the spring overflow. This had an additional unintended consequence, since the floods no longer spread out to deposit their silt and sediment and build up the land, and the flood plain gradually dropped further.
    So the pumping of the swamps allowed use of the land, and the existence of the levees protected against "normal" floods, but those things created a sense of comfort while setting up New Orleans up for a big disaster.

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