The Army Corps of Engineers is expecting another year of high water on the Missouri River, making levee districts anxious about repairing damage from last year’s floods.

There’s no need to run through the village crying wolf. But there’s a wolf.

That’s what the Army Corps of Engineers’ chief of Missouri River Basin Water Management, John Remus, said Saturday at the annual gathering of the Missouri Levee & Drainage District Association in Columbia.

Each year, Remus said, Tom Waters, the association president, asks whether conditions are normal, and how they compare with the average.

"It’s not ‘about average’ this year," he said.

The Missouri River will very likely flood again this year, Remus said.

Runoff in the river’s basin is expected to be the ninth-highest level on record, at 36.3 million acre-feet. That’s more than 10 million acre-feet above average, and the runoff from melting snowpack from upstream dams hasn’t reached its peak.

An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre to a depth of one foot.

Last year, runoff was 60.9 million acre-feet and flooding destroyed or prevented crops in large sections of the Missouri River bottoms. The flooding also disrupted travel for weeks on major highways, severely damaged roads and bridges, especially in northwest Missouri.

In central Missouri, flooding was the worst since 1993, reaching the second-highest crest ever recorded at Boonville.

Remus spoke to about 100 levee association presidents, members and farmers about this year’s flood risk.

Since March last year, 111 of the levee systems in the lower basin overtopped or breached, and nearly 120 systems have requested levee rehabilitation assistance. Of those, 66 have received damage assessments, and 62 have been approved to move forward toward receiving a contract to have their levees rehabbed.

At this point, only six contracts have been awarded to repair levees in Missouri, leaving many of those that requested help last year vulnerable as this year’s flooding begins.

The association advocates on behalf of the landowners behind those levees. It was formed after the 1993 flood in an attempt to create cohesion between the Army Corps of Engineers, which regulates levee construction and manages the river, and the farmers and levee district builders affected by its flooding.

Managing the river

Flows on the Missouri River, in large part, are controlled through a series of six dams constructed after the adoption of the Pick-Sloan Plan for flood control in 1944.

The control valve is Gavins Point Dam, on the Nebraska-South Dakota border, with the smallest storage. When water from upstream storms and snowmelt force the corps to release more from the first five dams, that water must be passed through to the lower river.

On Tuesday, the corps’ Northwest Division announced it would increase releases at Gavins Point to 41,000 cubic feet per second to make room for snowmelt runoff in the Rocky Mountains.. Normal releases during winter are 12,000 to 17,000 cfs.

At the height of the flood last year, the corps was releasing around 100,000 cubic feet per second from Gavin’s Point.

The flow Sunday afternoon at Boonville was 81,000 cfs. The peak during last year’s flooding was 363,000.

There’s a lot of snow that has yet to melt in North and South Dakota, Remus said. Once it starts, it will fill the upstream dams.

"I would like to see this start melting off a little faster here," Remus said. "Every day that it holds on, it may come out a little faster."

According to forecasts, the snow should start melting over the next week.

"If it melts in 10 days, that’s good," he said. "If it melts in three days, that’s not so good."

The system is built to deal with mountain and plains snowmelt. Precipitation is harder to predict. When events like last year’s "bomb cyclone" occur, the situation turns into one that is hard for the dam system to deal with.

The weather service can fairly accurately quantify precipitation trends a week in advance, Remus said. But any further than that, they can only really predict whether a certain point in time is going to be wetter than normal. So it’s hard to predict, at this point, whether another bomb cyclone could come around this year.

"I like to say, ‘you have a jet ski and an aircraft carrier’," Remus said. "A jet ski can turn on a dime. The system is so long and so big that we really need a lot of lead time to make any type of major course corrections … there’s just no forecast capability that can give us the reliability that we need."

The National Weather Service’s 2020 outlook says this season is going to be wet, but not as wet as last year, and that conditions are warmer. This year’s problem is wetness. Soils are more saturated than last year in the Missouri, Upper Mississippi and Great Lakes basins.


Some levees repairs will be finished by 2020, but a larger number won’t be done until spring of next year.

The rest continue to wait, or have rehabbed their levees themselves.

Farmers and levee district heads want this process to move faster.

"I think the response is slower than we’d like," said Roger Paulsmeyer, head of the A1 Levee District in Osage County. "And I think it’s very typical of the corps and the government. I think they’re doing basically all they think they can, and we sure want them to push as hard as they can because our livelihoods depend on it."

Paulsmeyer, who lives in Chamois, said his association fixed a hole in their levee because they couldn’t afford to wait for the corps to come fix it.

The Corps is required to repair levee systems in accordance with regulations outlined by Public Law 84-99. It employs an 11-step process to rehab non-federal levees, which can take months.

The Corps is under the direction of Congress, which makes rules governing the processes that guide levee development. Since Hurricane Katrina, members of Congress have tried to create a national flood safety program that catalogs the location, ownership, condition, or hazard potential of levees in the United States.

The Missouri River levee systems are mainly constructed by individual levee districts and offer varying levels of protection from floods. A few are federally built and maintained.

Evaluating the district levees after disaster flooding events is part of why it takes so long to start the repair process.

Ricky "R.D." James, assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works, said this slowness is the product of bureaucracy in Washington, D.C. where leaders make decisions about flood control regulations.

"You know, people that have worked in Washington for 25, 30 years, they get so used to ‘oh, this will take 10 years, We’re putting a billion dollars a year on that $100 billion.’ I can’t buy into that thinking," he said. "I'm impatient. I like to get things done. I like to see dirt moved out of the ground."

He said his colleagues in Washington don’t realize what is actually going on on the river when they sit in their offices planning, designing and regulating. Only those on the ground, moving dirt themselves, realize what needs to be done.

"This river has needed a flood control system for as long as I can remember," James said. "People have had to go in partnership with the Corps’ bill 84-99 for levees. There are few federal levees and then there are many levees that are built just by you. And that’s got to be put together in a system that protects all of you."

He said that system may not come in some of the farmers’ and levee district association members’ lifetimes, but that it will come eventually.