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Commentary: The Missouri River is just going to keep on flooding

File photo of the Missouri River west of Platte, S.D. Matt Gade / Forum News Service

The Missouri River used to be out of control. "It cuts corners, runs around at nights, fills itself with snags and traveling sandbars, lunches on levees, and swallows islands and small villages for dessert," is how the humorist George Fitch (pretty accurately) described it in 1907.

It was also hugely variable in size and shape. Below Yankton, South Dakota, where a narrow valley gave way to a flat expanse five to 18 miles wide, the Missouri and its various secondary channels, sandbars and the like "had a width of 1,000 to 10,000 feet during normal flow periods," historian Robert Kelley Schneiders wrote in 1999. During a flood, which usually came in April when snow melted in the Great Plains, or in June when it melted in the Rocky Mountains, the river could become a "foaming, misdirected monster" that covered the entire valley, sometimes with ice as well water.

Afterward, the Missouri would often resettle along an entirely new course. Here again is Fitch - who got to know the river while working at the newspaper in Council Bluffs, Iowa, just across the water from Omaha, Nebraska - in what has become a classic description:

"It is a perpetual dissatisfaction with its bed that is the greatest peculiarity of the Missouri. It is harder to suit in the matter of beds than a traveling man. Time after time it has gotten out of its bed in the middle of the night, with no apparent provocation, and has hunted up a new bed, all littered with forests, cornfields, brick houses, railroad ties and telegraph poles."

When Fitch wrote that in 1907, local officials and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had already been trying and mostly failing for several decades to persuade the Missouri to behave more like they thought a river should, flowing in a single channel navigable by barges and staying off neighboring cornfields and out of houses. "It is our purpose to improve the Missouri River from its source to its mouth, to make it thoroughly available for navigation," a Kansas City businessman and former mayor had declared at a regional summit on the matter in 1885. "This, if accomplished, would be an exceedingly valuable thing to the commercial, manufacturing, and agricultural interests of this section of the country."

It took a while, and a lot of wasted congressional appropriations, but in the early years of the Great Depression the Corps and more than 10,000 temporary workers finally succeeded, by means of pile dikes, stone and concrete revetments, "willow mattresses" and simple dredging, in channelizing the river from Kansas City to where it meets the Mississippi at St. Louis. An extended drought, though, left it still too shallow for barges. This inadequacy, along with the New Deal penchant for projects that employed lots of people, led to the construction of Fort Peck Dam in Montana, which after its completion in 1940 allowed the Corps to store water to be released into the river in drier months, followed by major channelization efforts upstream from Kansas City.

Then came big floods in 1943, after which Congress assented in 1944 to a combined plan cooked up by the Corps and the irrigation-focused Bureau of Reclamation to dam the Missouri at five places in the Dakotas, the last of them Gavins Point Dam on the South Dakota-Nebraska state line near Yankton. These dams drowned the best parts of several Indian reservations and created the country's largest reservoir system, with 72.4 million acre-feet of storage (for comparison, that's almost twice the water that all of California's farms and cities use in a year). These were from the beginning to be multipurpose reservoirs, operated to provide flood control, navigation, irrigation, hydroelectric power, drinking water, recreation and even habitat for fish and wildlife, but with the Corps in control the first two of those "authorized purposes" clearly predominated. In 1945, the Corps also got the go-ahead to build hundreds of miles of levees from Sioux City, Iowa, to St. Louis, and to firm up and deepen the river channel to at least nine feet for that entire distance.

For a long time, though, this new infrastructure did seem to succeed at keeping floodwaters at bay. Yes, there was some flooding in 1967, 1975, 1978, 1984, 1986 and 1987, and a lot in 1993. But the 1993 floods were caused by epic summer rains in the Midwest, not snowmelt from the Plains or the Rockies, and the worst of the damage was on the Mississippi River and on the lower Missouri far from the dams. In 1997, in a triumph for the Corps, the Upper Missouri Basin experienced the biggest runoff year since regular record-keeping began in 1898, but major flooding was averted.

Disaster? Yes. Natural? No.

Lately, though, things haven't been going so well. A new runoff record in 2011, 22 percent higher than the 1997 peak, proved too much even for even the nation's biggest reservoir system to manage, and there was heavy flooding downstream from and between the dams. This year, even though it isn't expected to set any overall runoff records, is looking even worse. Floodwaters breached levees in more than 40 places along the Missouri in mid-March, and more than a month later much of the river valley from Omaha and Council Bluffs southward to Missouri - most of which, because the river channel hugs the hills on the Nebraska side, is in Iowa - is still soaked. Interstate 29, which connects the Omaha-Council Bluffs metropolitan area to points south, is closed to just past the Missouri state line and not expected to reopen until June.

These floods got some but not a huge amount of coverage in the national media, most along the lines of, "Wow, a natural disaster!" Yet the modern Missouri River isn't natural, and floods in the Missouri basin have at least as much to do with what people have done to shape the river as with nature. The river is part of American history (as Meriwether Lewis and William Clark's main conveyance, among other things) and it is deeply enmeshed in modern conflicts over natural resources, economic development and the proper role of government. That's where the interesting stories lie - at least the ones that interest me.

Nature does still play a role, of course. The precipitating event for this year's floods was, as is usually the case, precipitation - heavy rains that started the night of March 12 in eastern Nebraska, southern South Dakota and western Iowa. The rain fell upon snow packed atop frozen ground that gave the rain and snowmelt nowhere to go but into creeks and rivers that eventually empty into the Missouri. Flows from the biggest of them, Nebraska's Platte River, peaked at an estimated 170,000 cubic feet (about two Olympic-size swimming pools) per second, 20 times the river's March average and almost equal to the Missouri's flow where the Platte met it just south of Omaha.

That caused flooding slightly upriver at Offutt Air Base and the Omaha suburb of Bellevue, while downriver it overwhelmed levee systems protecting farms and a few small flood plain settlements on the Iowa side. There was also some less-devastating flooding along the Missouri north of Omaha, and spectacular inundations in Nebraska along the Platte and its tributaries the Elkhorn River and the Loup River, as well as the Niobrara River that flows into the Missouri just upstream from Gavins Point Dam. The latter floods swamped the outskirts of several towns, temporarily cutting them off from the world, as well as tearing up roads and knocking out a 92-year-old hydroelectric dam on the Niobrara. But the flooding didn't last long, it generally kept within the 100-year floodplain (that is, areas deemed to have a 1 percent annual chance of flooding) and nobody that I know of was blaming the federal government for it.

Things were different along the Missouri. There, floodwaters engulfed areas that thanks to their levees had been deemed vulnerable only to 500-year floods (that is, they supposedly had only a 0.2 percent annual chance of flooding), and stayed there for weeks. At a Corps of Engineers public meeting in Nebraska City, Nebraska, that I attended earlier this month, it was quite clear that lots of farmers and other residents along the Missouri blame the federal government for what happened.

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The story that Corps officials had to tell in Nebraska City, most of which is safely ensconced in the hills just west of the river about 50 miles south of Omaha, was that there wasn't a whole lot they could have done. "This year the runoff came from uncontrolled tributaries," explained John Remus, chief of the agency's Missouri River Basin Water Management Division. "If we would have emptied the reservoirs, it would not have prevented this flood." As for Gavins Point Dam, which was downstream from the Niobrara River floodwaters, it "wasn't designed for flood storage" and thus could hold back the waters only briefly.

Gavins Point wasn't designed for flood storage because it was designed instead to smooth out flows for navigation, which is necessary because the Fort Randall Dam 70 miles upstream adjusts its releases to meet daily peaks in hydroelectric demand. All those uncontrolled tributaries remain undammed because, as Remus put it to me the day after the meeting, "If there were a good dam site, in the 1940s, '50s or '60s some agency would have put a dam there." The Corps actually explored damming the Platte River about 20 miles upstream from the Missouri in the 1930s and concluded that the resulting reservoir would fill with sediment so quickly "that the benefits would approach a minimum."

The idea still occasionally catches the fancy of local politicians envisioning speedboat rides from Omaha to Lincoln, but its multi-billion-dollar price tag, the tens of thousands of acres of farmland and one small city it would submerge and the relatively small capacity of the reservoir (it would be quite shallow even before it silted up) mean it's almost certainly off the table. In the 1940s, the Corps also considered several options for containing the flow of the Elkhorn River, the tributary responsible for most of those mid-March peak flows in the Platte, and found that the projected costs exceeded the benefits by a more than a two-to-one margin for all of them - which for the dam-happy Corps of the 1940s was really saying something.

Most of the people in attendance in Nebraska City seemed to get this. When the first person from the crowd to speak, Omaha insurance broker Kevin Penrod, advocated damming the Platte, he was greeted with near silence. Of the subsequent comments that got lots of applause, a few did concern inadequate infrastructure. "You had crappy levees!" exclaimed one man whose name I didn't catch because he stalked out immediately afterwards. Most, though, focused on the conviction that more flooding was happening because, as farmer Donette Jackson of Tekamah, Nebraska, north of Omaha, put it, the Corps' long-standing focus on flood control "has been reversed to pursue an environmentalist dream of a free river."

There are in fact environmentalists who dream of a free river, and environmental concerns that were ignored during the mid-20th-century damming and channelizing boom do now play some role in how the river is managed. How much of a role is debatable: the Missouri River remains a constrained, artificial waterway, and the rich ecosystem of plants, fish and other wildlife that once thrived along the river has been replaced by corn, soybeans and a much narrower assortment of wild plants, animals and fish, some of the most successful of them non-native invasive species such as carp.

Still, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which instructed federal agencies not to take actions that would "jeopardize the continued existence" of endangered or threatened species, has forced some changes. With the Missouri and its sandbars home to the endangered pallid sturgeon and interior least tern and the threatened piping plover, the Corps has made alterations to the mostly underwater wing dikes that help keep the river in its channel in order to create habitat for the sturgeon, and adjusts river flows in May and June to try to avoid swamping the nests of terns and plovers. In 2006, after years of wrangling with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and environmental groups, it began releasing "spring pulses" of water from Gavins Point Dam to encourage the sturgeon to spawn, but these were only conducted in 2006, 2008 and 2009 and have since been discontinued because they didn't seem to be helping.

The fact that these changes were followed in later years by flooding is "a coincidental thing," Remus told me. In 2014, though, 372 property owners sued the Corps, claiming that actions taken to protect endangered species were causing floods along the Missouri that represented an unconstitutional taking of private property without compensation. In March 2018, Federal Claims Court Judge Nancy B. Firestone agreed, but only partly, ruling that localized flooding in 2007, 2008, 2010, 2013 and 2014 could be blamed on the Corps, but the big floods of 2011 could not. I'm guessing the same will apply for the floods of 2019. Changes made to help endangered species may have made the river valley a little wetter, but keeping it entirely dry seems to be something that simply cannot be guaranteed with the existing infrastructure.

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Why not? A fuller river is one reason. As mentioned, this won't be a record runoff year for the Upper Missouri River, but assuming that projections pan out it will mark the fourth time in just 10 years that runoff exceeds its pre-1978 record. A 2016 study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration attributed recent runoff increases mostly to a change in weather patterns that has led to more precipitation falling in colder months when less of it evaporates. NOAA concluded that this was probably just natural variation, not climate change, but added that its modeling of future changes caused by global warming "bears resemblance to the recent observed trends."

In any case, the less than half a century of reliable runoff data that the Corps had in hand when it designed the reservoir system in the 1940s clearly fell short of capturing the full range of potential outcomes. Precipitation also runs off more quickly when it encounters pavement or houses or even cornfields rather than worm- and gopher-hole ridden grassland, so development and farming are likely culprits as well.

Finally, there's the simple reality that attempts to subdue nature often backfire, or at least disappoint. "When you confine a wild river like that to a narrow space it's going to fool you, especially now with climate change issues," says W. Carter Johnson, an emeritus professor of ecology at South Dakota State University who has participated in two major National Research Council studies of the Missouri River. Or as a high-profile Bill-Clinton-administration panel led by Corps of Engineers veteran Gerald Galloway, then a brigadier general and now an engineering professor at the University of Maryland, concluded after the 1993 floods:

"Persistent flood losses during a half century of flood-control programs raise serious questions concerning the long-term efficiency of such programs. A movement to reduce flood damages through nonstructural means, limiting unwise development of the floodplain and evacuating those at most risk, gradually has become a viable alternative to the construction of dams, levees, and floodwalls."

The word "gradually" was doing a lot of work there. It was all the way back in the late 1950s that researchers and a few Washington officials began pointing out that flood-control efforts and other government policies were perversely encouraging people to put themselves in the path of floods. But progress in changing those policies has been fitful, and in some areas, especially along the coasts, things seem to be headed in the wrong direction, with more and more people opting to live in harm's way. Along the Missouri, though, the situation really isn't all that bad.

The higher ground consists of what are called loess hills, formations of wind-deposited river silt that rise about 200 feet above the flood plain. The Missouri's wild behavior in the pre-dam era, coupled with the fact that the region's economy grew up around railroads rather than boats, meant that most people settled not in the floodplain but among the hills or at least right at their edge - or in the floodplains of smaller rivers, which has turned out to be problematic this year but not totally disastrous. Most of the counties along the Missouri River, especially those in Iowa, have been losing population for decades and haven't seen lots of new floodplain development. The handful of metropolitan areas along the river have grown, and while mostly located on higher ground have built airports, industrial parks, premium outlet malls and residential neighborhoods on the flats, but they can at least afford pretty good levees and flood walls.

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Hamburg, Iowa, with a population of 1,086, apparently cannot. The town, wedged against the hills on the east side of the valley south of Nebraska City, was able to fend off floodwaters in 2011 with a temporary addition to its levee. But it couldn't come up with the funds to make the levee improvements permanent, it wasn't allowed to keep the temporary addition and most of it was swamped in March.

Back in the mid-20th century Congress might have just paid for a better levee, but since the passage of the Water Resources Development Act of 1986, non-federal sources have to foot part of the bill - currently at least 35 percent - for new flood-control projects. This kind of cost-sharing makes sense, as does a more cost-benefit-analysis-oriented approach to flood control in general. But such calculations can seem cruelly dismissive of those with limited resources. Cities will tend come out as having more economic value than small towns, industry more than agriculture, rich neighborhoods more than poor ones. A couple of hours into the Nebraska City public meeting, a woman in the audience blurted out, "If water were running through the White House, you don't think there would be a solution?" Remus paused, smiled and said: "I think there would be a solution."

Still, it's not like the region is getting no attention from Washington. Vice President Mike Pence showed up the very next day in Pacific Junction, Iowa, a flooded town near the mouth of the Platte River, and declared, according to the Omaha World-Herald, that "we're going to rebuild … bigger and better than before." Pacific Junction has 470 inhabitants, down from a peak of 744 in 1890. That means it long predates the dams; it was founded at a railroad junction in 1871. But it also sits smack in the flood plain, reliant on levees to keep it from flooding yet again. Maybe, instead of rebuilding it and its levee bigger and better than before, we could pay a little more to move its residents - some of whom want to leave - to safety among the loess hills that rise less than two miles away.

Or maybe not. There are lots of places in this country and around the world that would be underwater much of the time but for human intervention, and they certainly shouldn't all be abandoned. I make no claim to know the proper balance between trying to tame the Missouri River and getting out of its way. It does seem apparent, though, that the approach that reigned from the 1930s through the 1960s was unsustainably unbalanced, and that acknowledging this does not constitute environmentalist extremism.

Even more apparent is that one of the main justifications for re-engineering the Missouri River has turned out to be chimerical. That relatively measly 5 million tons of barge traffic that I mentioned earlier was almost all downriver from Kansas City. Between Kansas City and Omaha, the river carried only 451,157 tons of freight in 2017, and upstream of Omaha it carried none at all, according to statistics maintained by the Corps of Engineers. Keeping the river navigable all the way to Sioux City seemingly generates no economic benefit, and is clearly at odds with the goal of restoring habitat. And while it was long assumed that ensuring navigability complemented flood control, given that channelization makes the river run faster, in recent years the Corps has been contending with claims from researchers that some of its navigational structures actually worsen flooding. Now that seems like a good fight to pick at the next Corps public meeting about the Missouri River.

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This article was written by Justin Fox, a columnist for Bloomberg.

Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of "The Myth of the Rational Market."