By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
Alert reader DG threw the following article from Richard Oswald in The Daily Yonder over the transom: “Letter from Langdon: 40 Feet High and Rising.” DG comments:
It’s a heart-breaking, vivid description of what happened and is happening now to a farmer in what he had thought was land above the Nebraska/Missouri River floodplains….
Texas never really left me in important ways, so Osborne’s plaints may have struck a deeper chord in me than a “regular” urbanite. I wept. As we go into 2020 politics (did we ever leave ’16?) and some form of the GND, this climate-cum-political catastrophe may loom higher than anything AOC or Trump has to say.
You might wish to read the article in full. This post, however, will, much like the Missouri once did and is still trying to do, meander through three waypoints that seem to illuminate the flood control situation on the Missouri (which seems to me to be too complex to assign blame, based on the level of effort I was able to put into research for this post). These waypoints are the levees, the dams, and the Army Corps of Engineers, which has the major role (though not complete) in managing the river system. I’ll put quotes from Oswald in italics, and then comment on them.
Oswald begins by writing of his home:
My home was built by my parents on a high portion of “second bottom” in the Missouri River valley in Atchison County, Missouri. For 80 years the river never touched it. Second bottoms are accreted soil shoved up and out by the prehistoric river … or maybe glaciers. People had built homes there for decades before my parents built theirs in the late 1930’s. That was before flood control on the Missouri….
Then the big public works started. Dams and levees were built to slow floods and keep them inside manmade boundaries. And for the most part it worked. Other than a flash snowmelt flood on fragile, newly built levees in 1952, we were safe from flooding for 41 years until 1993, during one of the wettest summers on record. After that we were safe again for 18 years until 2011, when massive flooding, brought about by Army Corps mismanagement, destroyed my crops and kept me away from my home for four months.
Now, eight years later, the river is back—bigger and taller than ever.
The New York Times describes the condition of the levees:
“Breaches everywhere: multiple, multiple breaches,” said Tom Bullock, the top elected official in Holt County, Mo., where crews were rushing last week to patch a leaking levee that, if it failed completely, would flood the small town of Fortescue.
And with the fear of more floods in the coming years — and perhaps even the coming weeks — many people said living and farming near the water might not be viable much longer without major changes.
On the river-specked Midwestern prairie, the thousands of miles of levees are an insurance policy against nature’s whims that, at their best, keep cropland and towns dry, floodwaters at bay and the agriculture-driven economy churning. But the levees are aging, subject to uneven regulation and, in many cases, never designed to withstand the river levels seen in the last decade.
I’m not sure who to blame for this, except perhaps the elites who ran the country like a tear-down for the last forty years; I mean, if we can’t manage to build a new tunnel under the Hudson for the Northeast Corridor — which elites ride through every day on the Acela! — when we know, for a certainty, that the current tunnel will fail, what can we do? Probably not restore and refresh an enormous public works project. We could do that ninety years ago. Just not today.
The flooding comes:
But, in the last week, the Corps said we were headed for an all-time new high crest of just over 46 feet. Most of it would come from below Gavins Point, which is beyond the Corps’ control. The flood was the result of rapid snowmelt and rain. That crest would be higher than 2011 at . Sandbagging would be pointless, and no one would be permitted on levees during the rise. But they also said it would be fast up and fast down because it was runoff from a single event. Most levees in good repair could possibly stand up to the brief overflow being predicted. Unfortunately, that didn’t take into account a 92-year-old earthen dam [the Spencer dam] on Nebraska’s Niobrara River, where something called a bomb cyclone ruined the dam, releasing a wall of water onto farms and pastures, washing away crops and livestock, and finding its way into Gavins Point dam at the forefront of Missouri River flood control.
Gavins Point is the last line of defense against Missouri River flooding in four states. It’s designed to meter upstream water into the river, not contain it. So when big water hits Big Muddy at Gavins Point, about all the authorities at Gavins Point can do is say “look out below.”
On Thursday, March 14, that’s what they did.
The New York Times describes the Army Corps of Engineers decision making process at the Gavin’s Point Dam:
Gavins Point is relatively small, not designed to hold back that kind of inflow. But losing the dam would be catastrophic.
To save Gavins Point, [John Remus, the chief of the Army Corps’ Missouri River Basin Water Management Division] ordered its spillways opened. At its peak, 100,000 cubic feet of water per second, the same as Niagara Falls, poured into a river already surging toward record heights.
Let me meander just a moment to the Corps’ decision-making process not in times of crisis:
Mr. Remus’s stewardship of the river is guided by a 432-page document, the Master Manual, which lays out the eight congressionally authorized purposes he must balance. They are flood control, river navigation, hydroelectric power, irrigation, water supply, water quality, recreation (such as fishing or boating), and the preservation of endangered species.
One problem with that: [now; see below]. Thus the eight purposes exist in a near constant state of tension.
Close meander. So when the Spencer Dam on the Niobrara River collapsed, that threatened to collapse the Gavins Point Dam on the Missouri, and so Mr. Remus opened its floodgates, submerging Mr. Oswald’s farm. But why did the Spencer Dam collapse? From the Omaha News:
Records obtained by The World-Herald indicated that the dam was last inspected in April 2018 and rated in “fair” condition.
But the report from the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources carried an ominous warning about the concrete and earthen structure: “deficiencies exist which could lead to dam failure during rare, extreme storm events.”
Officials with the Nebraska Public Power District, which operates Spencer Dam as a hydropower facility, said that while four deficiencies were noted in the 2018 inspection, most were minor and all had been addressed.
Becker, the spokesman for the power district, and Spencer, who oversees the district’s hydroelectric plants, said two workers were at Spencer Dam on the night of March 13-14, monitoring the rising water amid a blizzard that residents said left 3 to 4 inches of snow on the ground, preceded by 2 inches of rain.
. He said that when workers realized that water was overtopping the earthen portion of the dam, they evacuated.
Not a good night at the office. Here’s an aerial survey of the Spencer Dam, after its collapse:
11-foot wall of water: One dam breaks, three counties suffer
I’m not sure who to point the finger of blame at here, either, except I wonder if the Nebraska Public Power District thinks of itself as in the power business, not the flood control business, much as PG&E thinks of itself as in the power business, not the tree-trimming business.
The Corps of Engineers
One is always optimistic at the beginning:
At first I was optimistic about this spring. The Corps had carried the river high all fall and winter, making room for rain and snowmelt that was sure to come. who sued the Corps for its mismanagement and failure to adhere to basic tenets of flood control.
So, what is this court case? The Missouri River Flood Case site explains:
Ideker Farms, Inc., et al. v. United States of America, Case No. 14-183L, is brought by farmers, landowners and business owners from six states who sustained losses from one or more floods occurring in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2014. Flooding continued in 2015, 2016 and 2017. Plaintiffs are asserting that the Corps’ priority for flood control and the policies and procedures, which endeavored to protect landowners near the river from flooding, changed by 2004 to conform to environmental laws and regulations. Charging that the Corps’ actions have violated the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment that bars the Government from taking private property without just compensation, Plaintiffs are seeking reasonable and just compensation for losses caused by the flooding. The suit is not a class action, nor is it a suit predicated on the Corps’ mismanagement of the river.
(I’m not a lawyer, but I think that’s a really neat theory of the case, agree or disagree.) And — back to the meander above — the Master Manual played a key evidentiary role. From the Court’s decision in Ideker Farms, Inc., et al. v. United States of America:
The Master Manual was revised in 2006 to reflect the Corps’ approach. Both the 2004 and 2006 Master 23 Manuals, hereafter the “new Master Manual,” struck the language in the 1979 Master Manual providing a sequential priority of the FCA-authorized purposes in operating the System. PX4 at USACE0002644; PX196. The new Master Manual also contains two significant operational guidelines that are at issue in this litigation. First, the new Master Manual authorizes the Corps to keep a larger amount of water in the reservoirs for the benefit of other purposes, including fish and wildlife. PX117-A at PLTF-00008836; PX756. In this connection, . See, e.g., PX10; Tr. 4620:5-4626:22. Second, for the benefit of T&E species.
In essence, the farmers are saying that if the Corps wants to prioritize habitat over flood control, that’s fine, but when the floods happen and damage the farmer’s land, that’s a taking, for which the farmers should be compensated. The video above gives a fine example of what “more varied river stages” might mean in practice.
Again, I’m not sure where to point the finger of blame. I do wonder, however, what would happen if the Missouri were granted personhood, like Lake Erie. It does seem to me that the Missouri “wants to” meander, and as climate change continues and intensifies, will more and more get what it wants. All of which is not to say that the farmers should not be compensated.
All this takes place against very bad financial conditions for farmers, partly after the flood:
“The typical response on flood relief is groups like the Red Cross show up with paper towels and rubber gloves and scrub buckets,” said Oswald, 69, who does not expect to be able to get to his home or land for weeks. “The biggest thing farmers need is cash, or ways to access funds.”
“Flood insurance isn’t going to cover this worth a darn. FEMA is worthless,” said Olson, who farms 3,000 acres near Tekamah, Nebraska and runs a farm equipment business. “They don’t have any money, nobody has any money.”
But more largely because of debt:
Debt in the agrarian economy has hit levels last seen during the U.S. farm collapse of the 1980s.
The Nebraska Rural Response Hotline, which provides support to farmers and ranchers, has received a record number of calls about financial distress, said John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union. Calls about suicide and depression were up, too, he said.
Presumably, we’re not going to write off the Farm Belt as we did Puerto Rico (Maria) or the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans (Katrina), especially in an election year. Naturally, a disaster declaration has ben issued (at least for Iowa and Nebraska), but it’s not the disaster that’s the issue. It’s the new normal. What to do? I’m not sure “flood control” is the answer, especially if we want to use soil and grass in the heartland as carbon sinks. The Missouri is a meandering sort of person…