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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Is the Corps of Engineers trying to forcibly revert Missouri River floodplain to its natural state?


That's the eye-popping thesis suggested by Joe Herring at American Thinker, and his prima facie evidence, while thin, is also hard to get around. The key fact is this:

On February 3, 2011, a series of e-mails from Ft. Pierre SD Director of Public Works Brad Lawrence sounded the alarm loud and clear. In correspondence to the headquarters of the American Water Works Association in Washington, D.C., Lawrence warned that "the Corps of Engineers has failed thus far to evacuate enough water from the main stem reservoirs to meet normal runoff conditions. This year's runoff will be anything but normal."

For the why, Herring quotes the Corps' Master Water Control Manual:

Releases at higher-than-normal rates early in the season that cannot be supported by runoff forecasting techniques is inconsistent with all System purposes other than flood control. All of the other authorized purposes depend upon the accumulation of water in the System rather than the availability of vacant storage space. [Emphasis added.]

Originally, these other purposes were water supply, river navigation and recreation, none of which are served by failing to leave enough reservoir space for normal runoff in a high runoff year. But through thirty years of environmentalist domination of the federal bureaucracy, additional purposes have gained ever higher priority. The Missouri River should be "natural":

The Clinton administration threw its support behind the change, officially shifting the priorities of the Missouri River dam system from flood control, facilitation of commercial traffic, and recreation to habitat restoration, wetlands preservation, and culturally sensitive and sustainable biodiversity.

Herring even quotes a Corps biologist celebrating the current flood:

The former function of the river is being restored in this one-year event. In the short term, it could be detrimental, but in the long term it could be very beneficial."

Sherlock Holmes' method of exclusion

The direct evidence here is merely suggestive. "Habitat restoration" is a high priority goal and there is a bit of overt cheerleading for flooding. Far from conclusive, but how else to explain not vacating even a normal amount of reservoir space in a peak snowpack year?

Climate contrarians know to be wary of argument by the principle of exclusion. That's what the CO2 alarmists do. Eyes wide shut to extensive evidence that 20th century warming was caused by an 80 year grand maximum of solar-magnetic activity, they claim warming has to be due to CO2 because every other possible explanation has been ruled out.

But in The Case of the Waterlogged Corps(e), Sherlock's method of exclusion is reasonable. The usual problem of failing to identify all the possibilities doesn't apply because the list of agency objectives is specified. Of these, "habitat restoration" is the only one that is served by the Corps' actions.

The other possibility is that these government functionaries failed to notice that they had not vacated even the usual amount of space from their reservoirs, but low as expectations are for government work, this isn't really plausible. Such a mistake would have to be motivated, and as Herring points out, we know these people's motivations. Almost to a man they are eco-leftists, and we know the eco-leftist position on rivers.

It isn't the dot-connecting that is outlandish, it is the dots. People who expressly want to see floodplains returned to their natural state followed policies that guaranteed massive flooding. Herring is right: this calls for investigation.

Rational environmentalism

To the extent that risk of flooding can be lowered by flood-control infrastructure, the extra building on floodplains that this risk-reduction encourages is perfectly rational. What induces irrational building on flood plains is the federal government's longstanding policy of providing subsidized or implicit flood insurance.

After major flooding the government is prone to declare a disaster area. Even if the flood victims are not made whole, their losses are substantially mitigated, reducing the natural disincentive to build in flood zones. Get rid of this market interference and flood damages would be much diminished. In particular, flood plains would end up relegated mainly to agricultural uses that can weather occasional flooding with limited damage.

Seasonal flooding can actually be good for farmland so there is room for a win-win solution where flood control systems are set up to inundate large agricultural bottom lands as necessary to provide room for floodwaters. Instead of farmland on the outside of our riparian cities, substantial amounts of the best farmland would be on the inside of these cities. We see some of this now, but it would go much further if the government limited itself to infrastructure and did not interfere in markets. Safer for people, better for farming, better for migratory birds and the environment, and better for taxpayers.

Not easy to get there, after people have been building on the strength of government promises of relief for many decades, but it is a solution that is rational both economically and environmentally. Unfortunately, this is not what the eco-freaks want.

Instead of "natural" in the market-driven or liberty-driven sense, they embrace a sans-human naturalism, and it looks like the administrators of our flood-control infrastructure are in this camp. They have been hostile to flood-control infrastructure per se since the Clinton era, which is the only obvious explanation for why this infrastructure has been so completely misused.

Crossposted at WUWT.

UPDATE: Well, it turns out I did omit one of the Corp’s objectives: hydroelectric generation. Thanks to Harry for bringing up the new factor of dam operators being required to hold back hydroelectric generation to make room for wind-power when the windmills are in operation. The specific complaint of Pierre’s water manager was about the high level of lake Oahe. The Oahe dam is a major provider of electricity to the north-central U.S. and the Dakotas are the site of substantial new wind farming. Could this account for the deviation from past norms?

If so, wind-hydro effects could also have contributed to the flooding of Minot North Dakota. The main dam on the Souris River is the Canadian Rafferty-Alameda project, which in addition to providing flood control and water supply also supplies water to the Shand Power Station in lower Saskatchewan. The Canadians have also been going whole hog on windfarms, which would have displaced hydro. Were the Canadian dams fuller than usual as a result? Worth looking into.

The implications for wind-farming would be devastating. The water for the hydro that they replace will sometimes NEED to be released, meaning that if it is not used for hydro, it will have to be released without generating any electricity, so that wind generated electricity will at these times have zero value. If in order to avoid that implication they are holding the water in reservoirs when it needs to be released, then the wind farming becomes responsible for the resulting flooding.

I think that what happened there is a very well-learned lesson and I think that authorities and people involved in that have to find better ways and techniques to do that
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