The federal managers of the Upper Missouri River Basin’s system of six big dams, told a crowd in Fort Pierre on a rainy Wednesday in October that releases of water from Oahe Dam would be increased Thursday morning as part of a high wire, aggressive attempt to empty the reservoir enough to handle what already looks to be a wet spring in 2020.
They have a long way to go and a short time to get there, according to the Army Corps of Engineers’ officials’ presentation on Wednesday, Oct. 23.
One part is upping the amount of water being released from Lake Oahe.
Releases through Oahe Dam will go from the current 62,000 cubic feet per second to 65,000 cfs beginning the morning of Thursday, Oct. 24, said John Remus.
He’s the chief of Missouri RIver Basin Water Management office in Omaha for the Army Corps’ Northwestern Division. He brought a team of eight who used a turbo-prop aircraft to make public meetings along the river, including 200 who filled a room in Bismarck on Tuesday night, illustrating the concern this wet year has brought out.
North Dakota’s Gov.Doug Burgum this week declared a flood emergency for the entire state after heavy October snows and rains effectively ended the harvest for many farmers and damaged roads and flooded rivers.
Much of that water runs off into Lake Oahe, which stretches from just north of Pierre and Fort Pierre to just south of Bismarck and Mandan.
After Wednesday’s morning meeting in Fort Pierre, Remus and his crew planned to fly to Sioux City for a similar public meeting with similarly concerned people.
Rick Hahn, public works director for the city of Fort Pierre, told the Capital Journal that the Army Corps’ long term plan this year gave the city a pretty good idea that releases from Oahe Dam would get up near the 65,000 cfs level.
It will make some homeowners watch more closely as the river creeps up some, but it shouldn’t get to anyone’s doorstep, Hahn said.
Remus said the increased releases from Oahe Dam would mean the Missouri River would rise perhaps two-tenths or three-tenths of a foot higher, or 1.2 to 2.4 inches.
Because Fort Pierre is several feet lower than Pierre, it feels the effect of high water on the Missouri well before it’s neighbor to the east, says Fort Pierre Mayor Gloria Hanson.
“We will be meeting to talk about this,” Hanson said after Wednesday’s briefing from the Army Corps officials.
Remus added some perspective in his remarks Wednesday
“Kansas City is still under water,” he said, to highlight the billions in damage done in the Lower Missouri Basin, from Sioux City to St. Louis. Interstate 29 still is under threat from flood waters in those parts and many cities still haven’t fixed the levees that blew out this summer.
Meanwhile, the Army Corps has to get the six main stem reservoirs from Gavins Point near the South Dakota-Nebraska line up to Fort Peck in northeast Montana down enough so the “system” of six dams has enough water storage available to handle next year’s runoff.
The fact that this year is ending with soils about as wet as they can get across the region, likely to freeze in place, makes it too likely that next spring there won’t be any storage space in the Upper Basin’s soils for snow melt, Army Corps experts said on Wednesday.
Kevin Grode, team leader for regulating the six reservoirs behind the main stem dams on the Upper Missouri, grew up near Bristol, South Dakota, west of Webster, so he says he’s been familiar with the Upper Missouri Basin all his life.
And this year is one for the record books, according to Grode.
The Army Corps’s flood management office in Omaha is in charge of the huge Upper Missouri Basin that drains from the Rockies to Minnesota into the river and its dams, funneling down to Gavins Point Reservoir at the Nebraska border.
The Corps’ mission includes managing the water for fishing, for irrigation, for drinking, and barge traffic and just boating for fun. But since March 2018, its focus has pretty much been on handling the record wet conditions that caused flooding all the way down to St. Louis.
At the beginning of October, the Army Corps projected that runoff in the Basin in 2019 will end up totaling 61 million acre-feet (MAF), which would be 2.4 times the normal annual runoff of 25.3 MAF.
The only thing to compare with it is the year of the record floods that cost billions of dollars in Pierre and Fort Pierre and across the region.
“2011 was the highest runoff we had ever seen in our 122 years of records in the Upper Basin and that was 61 MAF,” Grode said. So if the Corps’ projection of 61 MAF in runoff is realized in December, “it will equal the record of 2011.”
A main reason, he said, is that “South Dakota has been the wettest the past 12 months that it’s ever been in the last 124 years.”
Up and down the Missouri it’s been way wetter than normal, Grode said. Even as he spoke Wednesday, a misty rain was falling over Fort Pierre, part of the precipitation this month that has been three times the normal amounts for October, he said.
Based on the weather experts, the Corps is expecting precipitation in the Basin in November and December to be about double the normal amounts, which already is baked into the projection of 61 MAF in runoff for the entire year, Grode said.
There is an urgency to evacuate as much water as possible by early December.
The Army Corps can’t release much more than 1 MAF during the winter in the Upper Missouri Basin because the cold temperatures and ice formations can lead to flooding, Grode said.
Pierre Mayor Steve Harding asked Remus if the Army Corps could lower Lake Oahe more through the winter, releasing more than 1 MAF, so there would be more room to take on runoff next year.
“We are going to be as aggressive as we can be,” Remus said.
But the way things look now, it will take all that aggressive release of water from Lake Oahe just to get its level down to the target of 1607.5 feet above sea level by next spring so there’s enough space in the reservoir to handle runoff in 2020., Remus said.
The Army Corps has to watch over the entire Missouri River system, including downstream of Sioux City where billions of dollars of flood damage still hasn’t been repaired.
“The system below Omaha is going to be very fragile next spring, so we are going to do all we can” to recover from this year’s flooding while coping with whatever comes downriver next year, Remus said. “But it’s going to be touch and go.”