Oct. 4, 2019, 5:45 a.m.
Governor Pete Ricketts recently criticized the Army Corps of Engineer’s management of the Missouri River on his podcast. Those criticisms get at long-term priorities, but the Corps is also facing a short-term deadline to prepare the river for next spring.
Gavin’s Point Dam sits on the border between South Dakota and Nebraska, about 70 miles to the Northwest of Sioux City, Iowa. The dam is the last point along the Missouri river where the Army Corps of Engineers controls the flow of water before the river follows Nebraska’s eastern border down into Missouri.
Releases at the dam were a point of controversy earlier in the year, but high-stakes decisions about how much water to release continue even now.
John Remus is chief of the Missouri River Basin Water Management Division for the Army Corps of Engineers in Omaha. He said the Corps is working to clear out flood storage at Gavin’s Point.
“We’ve got just right at half of the flood control storage that we still need to evacuate over the next eight to ten weeks," Remus said. "So we want to get most of that out before we cut back for the winter. So we’ve got a lot of water to get out. That’s why we’re more than twice what we would normally be putting out this time of year.”
Releases from Gavin’s Point are currently at 80,000 cubic feet per second. Remus says in an average year releases for this time of year would be closer to 30 or 35,000 cubic feet per second.
The higher release numbers are the product of wet weather in Nebraska, but also farther north in South Dakota.
As the Corps plans for the next few months, Remus hopes for drier weather.
“Getting back to normal kind of depends on what your definition of normal is," Remus said. "As far as flow rates, what we would need to have happen is probably a somewhat dry winter and spring next spring to kind of get things back to normal from a Missouri River Basin reservoir perspective.”
Even with a dry winter, Remus said things will remain wet.
“The basin will be wet, in all likelihood, coming out of the winter, maybe even a little bit wetter than we had this spring. Any amount of precipitation is gonna have an increased run-off relative to that," Remus said. "I don’t know what normal would be next year or average. I think we’re probably looking at something that’s maybe a little bit above average next year as far as run-off goes.”
While Remus and the weather service are looking at weather forecasts and how they may affect run-off, Bret Budd is working to make sure levees on the Missouri river are ready for flood season.
Budd is chief of the systems restoration team for the Corps of Engineers. He says that while some construction contracts have already been awarded, the process for getting levees repaired will continue past next spring.
“Some of the quicker ones, we had a real small repair at Pender, that project’s complete," Budd said. "The rest of them we’re just, the ones that we just started awarding in the last couple weeks, some of the smaller ones will be completed this year, this construction season. The rest will dribble out into next construction season, through the summer of 2020.”
Budd explained the process a levee repair goes through from initial damage to completed construction.
“First thing that happens is the levy sponsor has to request assistance from the Corps of Engineers," Budd said. "Once that request is in we have to request money from our headquarters to do what’s called a project information report. And once the funds are received we send a team out to do an inspection of the levee systems, quantify what damages are on the levee, and if they were due to the flood or if it was a maintenance issue.”
From there the local corps can move to a preliminary design and cost estimate. That cost estimate helps them in an economic analysis.
“So if it’s all based on annualized costs," Budd said. "The annualized cost of the repairs vs. annual savings if we do the repair, and the benefit cost ratio has to be above one.”
If the cost benefit ratio is right, the project information report, typically about 80 pages long, is passed onto the Army Corps headquarters.
Only after approval can the local Corps request design funding, design the project, and solicit bids from contractors.
This process takes time. However, it’s not the same process used for all levee projects.
Governor Pete Ricketts is frustrated with the length of time permitting took for a levee project near Offutt Air Force Base.
“That levee needed to be improved. We all knew that. The process took six years to get the permit and cost six million dollars," Ricketts said. "In 2016 the state put up 13 million dollars to get this done. And because the permitting process took so long, the work had just begun when we got these rains and this flooding. And hundreds of millions of dollars was done to Offutt. If we had been able to get this done in a timely manage we would have been able to mitigate some of this damage to the air base.”
The levee near Offutt was not originally a repair project. The local levee sponsor wanted to raise the height of the levee to reduce flood risk. The approval process requires looking at whether raising the levee will move risk to other parts of the river.
The current plan is for the levee near Offutt to be repaired by a contractor hired by the Corps, and then a contractor hired by the natural resource district will raise the levee.
Governor Ricketts and other area governors met with the Corps of Engineers in March, and there is still some disagreement about how the river should be managed.
However, one goal connects both sides: to protect Nebraska against a repeat of one of the largest natural disasters in state history.