Sunday, June 26, 2011

Blaming our ancestors for the Missouri floods

An editorial in the Des Moines Register: Everyone is looking for a place to lay blame for the flooding caused by unprecedented amounts of water barreling down the Missouri River, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the favored scapegoat. That is fair only to the extent that the Corps manages water moving through the dams and levees along the 2,300 miles of the Missouri. Blame must also be shared by a host of others who over the past 75 years decided to tame this once meandering river.

Re-engineering the Missouri River represented one of the nation's largest single public works projects. It was initiated during the Great Depression as a massive economic-development program, and to this day it affects the landscape, the environment, wildlife and lives of people in 10 states and beyond.

The project achieved its mission of straightening the river for shipping and navigation, striking a balance between routine floods and droughts, and creating hydroelectric power and recreational opportunities. But all this has come with enormous human and environmental costs, including eliminating wildlife habitat and starving downstream floodplains of nourishing sediment that has had serious consequences as far south as the Gulf of Mexico.

Critics have long argued the man-made changes to the Missouri exacerbate the flood risk, and some go so far as to say they could yet cause a catastrophe if even one of the dams fails, causing a succession of failures in a domino effect that would send several years' worth of snowmelt and rainwater all the way downstream to the Mississippi, wiping out cities, infrastructure and farms.

If that were to happen -- and the experts insist it won't -- it would be the result of decisions made to build this massive water-management system in the first place, not just decisions made by the engineers at the floodgates controls today….

Water flows from the Missouri River over levee L-550, located north of Highway 136 in Atchison County, Missouri, June 19, 2011. It was constructed by the Corps in the late 1940s. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo by Carlos J. Lazo)

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