As the engorged Missouri River swamps towns and threatens to burst a backup levee in Hamburg, Mo., lawmakers are calling for a review of the Army Corps of Engineers' flood-control plans.
With record snowmelt and rainfall threatening to create the second major U.S. flood disaster in as many months, the Army Corps is scrambling to drain six massive reservoirs in Montana and the Dakotas. The corps is releasing water more than twice as fast as has ever been attempted since the reservoirs were built some 50 years ago.
The disaster is caused by record snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains, which experienced snowpack of more than 140 percent of average this year, and historic rainfall totals that are funneling more water into the Missouri River than has been seen since record-keeping began in the 1890s.
"We've described it as a perfect storm," said Jody Farhat, who oversees water management in the basin for the Army Corps' Omaha District.
For more than a century, Farhat said the system has always demonstrated the capacity to absorb what weather surprises nature dealt. Not this year.
"This is a new data point in history," she said.
Decisions about how to manage water levels in the six reservoirs are carried out according to the corps' "Master Manual." The document aims to balance flood control with the need to maintain water supplies, hydroelectric generation and shipping channels between St. Louis and Memphis.
"It's a balancing act," said David Conrad, a water management consultant for the environmental group Water Protection Network. "For the summer, you want water as high as possible, but you want it down for the spring so you can catch runoff."
The Missouri River disaster, which follows epic flooding in the Mississippi River, has rankled Great Plains lawmakers. They are fuming over how much water the Army Corps stockpiled in the reservoirs and is now forced to release, threatening to send a second flood pulse through the river in the coming weeks.
"You know there's just a historic amount of water coming down the Missouri River out of the system, and it raises the questions, begs the questions, what happened?" said Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.). "How did we all the sudden end up with a situation where we have to drive twice as much water down the system for a whole summer?"
Emptying the reservoirs at the fastest rate is expected to continue into mid-to-late August, only to be slowed somewhat and continued toward the end of the year so as to make room for next year's snowmelt and rain.
"I won't draw any conclusions today other than I've already said to the Corps of Engineers," Johanns said. "I understand you're battling the waters now, but I do want to be part of process that looks back on this and says, what did we do right and what did we do wrong?"
South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson (D) has said it is likely Congress will hold hearings on how the Army Corps managed the flooding. And Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) on Wednesday called for a 9/11-type federal commission to study the river basin's flood-control policies.
"I am frustrated," Brownback told The Kansas City Star. "It's time we talk about the impact of flooding on the Missouri River system. ... It's about human life."
Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) told the newspaper he will introduce legislation to change the way the Army Corps manages Missouri River flows.
"We are not managing the river, the river is managing us," Graves said.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) was careful to direct his criticism at the Master Manual, rather than at Army Corps leaders, who insist they have little leeway in straying from the dictates of the flood control plan.
"I don't have problems with the way the corps has been doing its job," Blunt said. "My problem is that the plan is not the right plan. It's a plan that requires holding too much water back during the winter to ensure a spring rise that, more often than not, can turn into a spring flood. We would have some level of flooding no matter what the corps did, but their plan made it worse, not better."
Likewise, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) sympathized with the Army Corps but called for a review of not only Missouri River water management policy but also the policy that dictated blowing up a levee to activate a spillway in her state during the Mississippi River flood. That decision swamped 136,000 acres of farmland.
"I think they've had a very difficult job this year, and I think they are working very hard at it," McCaskill said of the Army Corps. "When this is all over, and everyone has had a chance to catch their breath, I think we really have to look at a couple of the policies -- the decisions as to when and how to release water out of the reservoirs and the flooding situation and obviously the man-made destruction of levees and how those decisions are made. I think it's going to be important to do a little oversight on that."
Reporters John McArdle and Katie Howell contributed.