Monday, November 19, 2012

Missouri River Flow Reduction Places Army Corps Under Increased Scrutiny

Gavins Point Dam - Click to Enlarge
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to significantly reduce the flow of Missouri River water at Lewis and Clark Lake (Gavins Point Dam) in South Dakota toward the end of this week (on or about November 23), as it does annually to maintain enough water in upstream areas of the watershed to ostensibly meet various, sometimes competing, water resource needs in the region. The flow reduction (from the current 36,500 cubic feet per second to around 12,000 cubic feet per second over the course of several days) places at risk the normal flow of barge traffic on the Mississippi River downstream of its confluence with the Missouri River because the water levels in the Mississippi River are already low as a result of the persistent drought in the country's mid-section this year, and the Missouri River currently is adding about 60% of the water flow to the Mississippi River where the two rivers meet (The November 19 Mississippi River flow at St. Louis, Missouri was recorded at 79,200 cubic feet per second, while the Missouri River flow near its mouth was 48.500 cubic feet per second).

Ironically, the Army Corps' plans for managing the Missouri River's flow have placed it under increased scrutiny by the barge industry, the public and elected officials at a time when the Corps' ability to thoroughly evaluate its management of the complex River system has been limited by Congress.

The Drought and Mississippi River Barge Traffic
Rock Pinnacles near Thebes
Click to Enlarge
Barge industry representatives, members of the U.S. Congress, state governors and local officials have called upon the Army Corps to adjust their Missouri River management plans in light of the drought, to ameliorate adverse impacts to the flow of barge traffic.  Major Gen. John Peabody, commander of the Army Corps' Mississippi Valley Division has said that the reductions in Missouri River flows will take place, as planned, in order to adequately accommodate other authorized uses. Peabody has also indicated, however, that the Corps would implement two additional measures to mitigate the impact of lower Missouri River flows and resulting lower Mississippi River water levels: first, additional water will be released from upstream Mississippi River storage areas in Minnesota that should have the effect of adding three to six inches to the depth of the Mississippi River downstream; and second, the Army Corps will demolish (dynamite) rock pinnacles in the Mississippi River that have historically caused navigation restrictions under low water conditions in the vicinity of Thebes, Illinois.  You can click here for the latest Army Corps of Engineers Mississippi River navigation channel condition status report.

Missouri River Authorized Purposes and Conflicting Water Resource Uses
Multiple users of Missouri River’s water resources (both human and non-human), and the multiple demands those diverse users place (under law) on the Army Corps' water management strategies often come into conflict, and the drought has served to sharpen those points of conflict this year, placing the Army Corps under added scrutiny over how it manages the Missouri River Basin's water for a variety of often-conflicting purposes (what the Army Corps calls “Authorized Purposes” - authorized by the 1944 Flood Control Act (Pick-Sloan Act)). The authorized purposes are (in alphabetic order): fish and wildlife habitat, flood risk management, irrigation, navigation, power generation, recreation, water quality and water supply. Those authorized purposes all are supposed to have equal priority under the law and under the resulting Army Corps management plans. For example, the Army Corps stores additional water in upriver reservoirs beginning in the autumn, so that River water resources may be available later (i.e., in the spring) for some water users who rely upon the River water for its authorized purposes (such as agriculture irrigation, fish and wildlife habitat, downstream Missouri River navigation, power generation and water supplies).

Missouri River Authorized Purposes Study
The U.S. Congress directed the Army Corps to conduct a Missouri River Authorized Purposes Study (MRAPS), the first review of the eight authorized purposes of the Missouri River since passage of the 1944 Flood Control Act. Under MRAPS, the Army Corps would evaluate whether it should still manage the Missouri River based on concepts prevalent in 1944, and then recommend changes to the 1944 Flood Control Act to Congress, so that the River management strategy can be modernized. However, the 2011 massive Missouri and Mississippi River flooding brought with it accusations of Corps' River mismanagement, and Congress barred the Corps from spending any funds toward MRAPS in fiscal year 2012 (which ran through September 30, 2012). Those restrictions are still in place as a result of the fiscal year 2013 Continuing Resolution passed by Congress in September   Accordingly, the Army Corps has been forced to suspend MRAPS, at least temporarily.  In the meantime, examination of the Corps and its unenviable water resources balancing act continues, along, it seems, with the inevitable criticism that follows.

No comments:

Post a Comment