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Flood expert Galloway: Missouri River floodplain needs comprehensive plan

In Region

1:15 am on Mon, 07.11.11

When torrents of rain poured into the lower Mississippi River this spring, most of that record flow was contained by federal levees or diverted into floodways and spillways as part of a system focused on limiting flooding.

In contrast, the relentless rain and snowmelt that surged into the upper Missouri River entered a far different system -- a series of reservoirs whose dams usually can be controlled like giant spigots -- that was designed not only to limit flooding but also to influence navigation, power generation, irrigation, recreation and wildlife.

With this summer's flooding, the flaws of Big Muddy's system are being exposed. The deluge in the basin's north filled the reservoirs to capacity and forced the Army Corps of Engineers to open the "spigots" full blast, resulting in heavy flows that caused serious flooding north of Kansas City and is now surging through central Missouri.

Gerald E. Galloway

As the high water nears St. Louis, lawmakers, officials from the Corps of Engineers and outside experts are already examining what went wrong and discussing what lessons might be learned. "We need to try to put together another great plan for the Missouri -- as was done in the past -- and do it in a high-tech 21st-century manner," said river engineer Gerald E. Galloway.

Galloway knows a thing or two about Midwest floods, having led the White House-appointed panel that drew lessons from the Great Flood of 1993.

That deluge caused about $15 billion in damages, destroyed 100,000 homes and inundated 6.6 million acres along the Missouri and upper Mississippi Rivers -- including devastating losses in the St. Louis region.

As the lead author of "the Galloway report" -- officially, "Sharing the Challenge: Floodplain Management into the 21st Century" -- Galloway is also acutely aware of how difficult it is to change the system, and how experts' recommendations often end up collecting dust on government shelves.

"People tend to forget about floods," said Galloway, a former Corps brigadier general who is now an engineering professor at the University of Maryland. "The pattern has been: Consider these ideas and then just sort of let them dribble away."

The 1994 Galloway report called for a comprehensive approach to "flood damage reduction" -- as opposed to strict flood control -- that would deploy all available tools, both structural (such as levees and dams) and non-structural (such as wetlands and floodplain restrictions). Recognizing that completely clearing floodplains is unrealistic, the report suggested striking a balance among the many competing uses of the river, with government, businesses and private citizens sharing more responsibilities.

Analyzing that study in 1994, this reporter described its vision: "Thunderstorms roll in day after day in 2013, dumping as much rain over the Midwest as the legendary storms that had caused the Great Flood of 1993. The roiling Mississippi and Missouri rivers rise treacherously high, sending muddy torrents through their flood plains. But there aren't as many towns or businesses in the bottomland as there used to be, and the river levees fail in a planned sequence that spares big cities. So when the final damages from the Flood of 2013 are calculated, the costs are a fraction of the $15 billion in losses from the Flood of '93 . . . with far fewer refugees driven from their flooded homes."

The Flood of 2011 hasn't quite worked out that way along the upper Missouri, although some changes have been made over the past 17 years that seem likely to limit the damage as the high water surges into the St. Louis region. While the river levels are likely to remain high into September, the extent of flooding should be known soon.

Meanwhile, efforts are underway to draw some new lessons from the flood. This week, U.S. senators from Missouri River states -- led by Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. -- plan to meet in Washington to discuss how to respond to this year's severe flooding. Blunt told reporters he expected "good attendance" at the first meeting, which includes North Dakota's senators and might also draw lawmakers from Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska and South Dakota.

While the senators' main emphasis is flood control, Galloway suggests that they take a look at some of the 1994 recommendations as well as the post-Hurricane Katrina reports of 2006 and consider revamping floodplain policies to help limit the damage in the Big Muddy's vast basin.

"I would recommend that they aim to develop a comprehensive approach to water management in the Missouri River basin," he said. As part of that, lawmakers might "look at what we need to do to ensure that we're taking a systems approach to dealing with flooding and water management of the Missouri."

With Congress now slashing federal spending, Galloway told the Beacon, "We're probably not in a position to go out and build a whole bunch of new infrastructure. We've got to take other steps to reduce the flood losses and risks."

And instead of dwelling on the past, he suggested, "I would look at what the future holds. Let's not go back and design for where we were yesterday or today; let's figure would what the future might be, and what we are going to do about it."

A Tale of Two Rivers

Striking in rapid-fire succession after spring rains, this year's two major floods have highlighted the fundamental differences between the Missouri and the lower Mississippi river systems for managing the rivers and their floodplains.

The lower Mississippi system -- developed in the wake of the devastating 1927 flood -- is harnessed by the rigidly controlled federal Mississippi River and Tributaries (MR&T) project of levees and floodways, billed as the world's largest flood-control project.

Despite the intentional flooding of the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway and other problems this spring when the system faced its greatest test since the floods of 1927 and 1937, Galloway said the MR&T system "performed very well ... because there was tremendous coordination on every aspect of the movement of those floodwaters down the river."

"We're not blessed with that on the Missouri system," added Galloway, noting that the Big Muddy system depends to a great extent on managing reservoirs and has fewer flood-control options downstream of Sioux City. As the current flood shows, "there is no overall comprehensive plan" for managing the Missouri River and its floodplain, Galloway said. Instead, there is a thick manual that provides guidance to the Corps.

A product of the big-dam era, the Big Muddy's system -- the Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Program, authorized by Congress after a major 1944 flood and built over decades -- was designed to govern the conservation, control and use of water resources in the basin. It spans 1,770 miles and includes six dams and reservoirs. In contrast to the MR&T project, flood control is only part of the Pick-Sloan mission; the other priorities are hydroelectric power, navigation, irrigation, recreation and wildlife restoration.

Although it is often referred to as a "master plan" for regulating river flows, the Missouri River Master Manual is in reality a guidance manual, including a "water control plan" that helps the Corps decide how much water to keep in, and release from, the reservoirs.

Following a severe drought in 1988, the Corps began the process of updating that Master Manual, and no one seemed to be happy with the resulting "delicate balance" in 2004. Both then-Gov. Bob Holden, a Democrat, and U.S. Sen. Christopher Kit Bond, R-Mo., contended that Missouri was a loser in the plan -- but their main concern was summer low water that could hamper navigation rather than high water that could lead to flooding.

"It was so bad that, when they were working on the master manual, some of the Northern states sued the Corps, some of the Southern states sued the Corps," Galloway recalls. "The Justice Department finally turned it over to a retired judge in St. Paul who looked them over and advised: 'Look Congress, there is conflict among these -- solve it. And, meanwhile, the Corps should do what it thinks is right.'"

Photo from US Army Corps of Engineers
Brig. Gen. John McMahon

This year, the Corps says it followed the manual in regulating the reservoirs and trying to limit the flooding. The commander of the Corps' Northwest Division, Brig. Gen. John McMahon, wrote this summer that this year's "historic and unprecedented releases" from the reservoirs "have pushed us into uncharted territory."

The general said "there is no doubt that the Missouri River will be a changed river following these historic flows. As the Corps conducts reviews ... we will be presented with yet another opportunity to solicit feedback from the public about our operations."

There will indeed be plenty of feedback, with governors and members of Congress already calling for investigations and reassessments. "Why didn't we investigate before, if it was a problem?" Galloway asks. "Everyone has known that there is a conflict among uses between upstream and downstream," as well as among competing interests.

The reservoir system functioned as it was designed, and "did what it was supposed to do" this spring, Galloway said. But he says Mother Nature sprung a surprise. "What people fail to understand is that we don't have absolute control of Nature," he said. "It's very difficult to predict what the rainfall is going to be and whether the reservoirs will fill up. Some have been around for 50 years, and this is the first time they filled up."

'staircase' Approach to Managing Flood Plains

With no one able to predict or control rainfall adequately, many experts have shifted focus to managing flood plains as more realistic than controlling floods.

"If one major thing has changed since the '90s, it is that the Corps and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are now talking in terms of 'residual risk,' Galloway said. "That means everybody's got to recognize that if they live in the floodplain, they can't be promised immunity from floods."

US Army Corps of Engineers
A slide shows the staircase model of flood risk. Levees and dams (covered under the "Structural" level) are only one way of reducing risk from floods. Click the image to see a larger version of the slide.

So with little new money expected from Congress, and questions about new dams or higher levees, what can be done? After the 2008 Midwest flooding in St. Louis and elsewhere, a Senate panel asked the Corps to dust off Galloway's 1994 report and the post-Katrina report and a national levee policy report to make suggestions.

"The same philosophical approaches are in all of them," Galloway said. "You've got to properly manage the flood plain. You've got to be able to take charge and control the use of the land. And you've got to have people responsible for dealing with these issues."

The central tenets of effective land use involve either keeping settlements out of flood-prone areas or at least making sure that people flood-proof their homes and buy flood insurance. "So the burden is shifted from the people who live in other areas of the country to the people who are putting themselves at risk." Galloway said.

"If you move into a new housing development in the natural floodplain along the banks of the Missouri, that's telling you that there is a possibility that someday you could have a flood. Not likely, because you've got big dams and levees. But when unusual events occur, you ought to be aware of it."

As a guide for flood-management efforts, the Corps and FEMA have come up with what they call a "staircase" risk-reduction paradigm. The vertical axis is the amount of risk in a given area; the steps coming down represent actions that can be taken. "Only one of those steps is building levees and floodwalls," Galloway said. "There are actions like evacuating people, improving building codes, effective land-use planning."

After major floods in its central valley, California used the staircase approach, with various government and business agencies working on each. "Each step reduces the risk somewhat," Galloway said. "But it acknowledges that, no matter what you do, there is a fundamental residual risk that remains. There is no dam that can't either overtop and no levee that cannot fail."

In the end, Galloway said, people must find better ways to cope with natural disasters, rather than assuming that they can prevent damage from them. "We ought to proceed with the idea of how can we make ourselves less prone to risk, rather than: What are we going to do to stop Nature? "

Contact Beacon Washington correspondent Robert Koenig. Note: Robert Koenig won the National Press Club's top award for Washington correspondence for his analysis of the government's response to the 1993 flood.

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