In 1943 the Missouri River flooded three times. In March the river jumped its banks along its upper reach (the army considers the river above the Missouri River-Big Sioux River confluence the upper river) after the melting of the Plains snowpack. In May the river inundated portions of its valley from Sioux City southward after the commencement of heavy spring rains. The third flood arrived in June when the meltwater from the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming and Montana arrived in the already engorged lower valley; it struck the river south of Nebraska City, Neb.
The army’s navigation channel from the mouth to Sioux City (built from 1929 to 1940) played a major role in the two floods that hit the lower valley in 1943. The navigation channel’s pile dikes and revetments kept the river from its 100-year floodplain. Instead of being able to spread out and naturally lower its flood crest, the navigation channel forced the river up and then out of its banks. Once freed from its wooden- and rock-lined prison, the Missouri moved through the lowlands with terrifying force, bowling over buildings, undermining roadways and hammering the army’s training structures. Floating trees crashed into pile dikes, splintering the cypress poles and carting the added debris downstream. Freshly dug channels darted through the valley’s soft alluvium, leaving the navigation channel without a river. Occasionally, the Missouri cut chutes on the landward sides of pile dikes or revetments in a move the army referred to as “outflanking,” as if the river represented a German military unit bent on defeating the army’s bulwarks.
The flood of 1943 outraged Colonel Lewis A. Pick, head of the Missouri River Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Pick oversaw the army’s work along the Mighty Mo from his office in Omaha. Pick believed the meandering and flood-prone Missouri had no place in a modern, industrial America. In his mind, a wild Missouri held the same perceptual place as the former nomadic Native American tribes. The river, in a manner similar to the Indians of the 19th century, needed to be locked down and integrated into the American economic system. The flooding Missouri disrupted the productive efficiency and war-fighting capabilities of the greatest machine ever constructed by humanity—the United States of America. Pick wanted the Missouri made efficient to serve the machine.
Pick understood that the navigation channel’s reduced carrying capacity exacerbated flooding in the lower valley; although he never publicly admitted it. To have acknowledged the navigation channel’s culpability in the 1943 floods would have discredited the army and threatened its institutional dominance of the Missouri. Pick also feared that the river, if left to its own devices, would eventually wash away the navigation channel and revert to a wild, uncontrolled condition.
In order to prevent the total loss of the navigation channel, and to curtail future floods in the army’s vulnerable, engineered lower river, Pick submitted his Pick Plan to Congress in August 1943. Pick’s plan recommended the construction of Garrison, Oak Creek, Oahe, Fort Randall and Gavin’s Point dams across the mainstem of the Missouri in North and South Dakota. Those five dams would have a total reservoir storage capacity of 35.2 MAF (million acre-feet). With the addition of Fort Peck Dam’s reservoir, the army would have 54.7 MAF of storage, more than enough to hold the Missouri’s average annual discharge of roughly 25 MAF. Those six structures would protect the population of the lower valley from floods, secure the navigation channel from utter destruction and guarantee water for a 9-foot depth in the barge channel south of Sioux City. Pick made it clear in his plan, and in his later statements, that he considered navigation the highest use of the Missouri’s waters.
At the same time that Pick formulated his plan for the river, the Bureau of Reclamation worked on its own development scheme. In the 1940s the bureau wanted to take authority from the army for the upper river. Glenn Sloan served as the bureau’s Missouri River expert at its Billings office. Sloan believed irrigation and hydropower production to be the highest use of the Missouri River. Sloan concluded that flood control could be provided to the lower valley by holding back the Missouri’s two annual rises for irrigation. Irrigation did not conflict with flood control. However, irrigation did conflict with the use of the river’s stored waters for the navigation channel. Sloan saw the navigation channel as a waste of both water and federal expenditures. Sloan took five years to write up his development plan for the Missouri. Pick put his plan together in a mere three months. Sloan’s Plan came out in early 1944. It proposed three mainstem dams at Oahe, Big Bend and Fort Randall with a combined reservoir storage capacity of 24.95 MAF. With the addition of Fort Peck Dam, the bureau’s plan would store approximately 44.45 MAF. Like Pick’s Plan, Sloan’s development scheme had ample reservoir storage to contain any future Missouri River flood as long as the reservoirs were operated properly.
In December 1944 Congress passed the Pick-Sloan Plan for Missouri River Development. Historians have long thought of it as a compromise. In fact, it was not much of a compromise at all. In the final legislation, the army agreed to jettison the Oak Creek Dam in favor of a higher Oahe Dam with almost four times the original reservoir storage space. The army also agreed to the construction of Big Bend Dam, by the army rather than the bureau. The army gained operational authority over all five, new mainstem dams. The water in the upstream reservoirs was slated to support the navigation channel below Sioux City. If enough water remained in the Dakotas after the lower river met its water requirements, it could be used for irrigation.
Since 1944, the Missouri hydraulic system has been operated primarily to support the navigation channel below Sioux City. But the navigation channel has been a bust. The army predicted in the 1950s that the navigation channel would carry five million tons of cargo per year by 1980. It has never met that projection. In the drought year of 2008 the navigation channel carried 175 tons. Yes, 175 tons! Additionally, the navigation channel played a large role in the flood of 2011. Its reduced carrying capacity worsened flooding south of Sioux City. Its water requirements kept the upstream reservoirs high when they should have been low.
Pick’s vision for the Missouri has been an abject failure. But the bureau’s vision for the Missouri would have failed too. Sloan wanted to use Missouri River water to irrigate the James Valley of South Dakota and North Dakota’s Souris basin. Both of those areas are now awash in water.
The 1943 flood served as the impetus for the development plan that has determined the American relationship with the Missouri for the past 67 years. The flood of 2011 has shown the Pick-Sloan Plan to be inadequate for our time. A new plan for the Missouri River must emerge from the recent flood. It should be a plan that downgrades navigation from its current priority status in the army’s operating manual. Although the army has yet to admit it, the navigation channel and its water storage requirements played a major role in this year’s flooding. Consequently, a new Missouri River plan should provide only minimal support to navigation between Kansas City and the mouth of the river. That reach is the most utilized by the tiny Missouri River barge industry. However, the navigation channel from Kansas City north to Sioux City needs to be deauthorized and dismantled. Barge traffic along that section is almost nonexistent and has been for years. The reconstruction of the pile dikes and revetments along that reach after the flood cannot be economically justified. Moreover, that reach is the narrowest and most vulnerable to floods of any reach in the entire system. The bulk of this year’s flooding in the Missouri Valley is occurring between Sioux City and Kansas City. The river there must be allowed to enter its former floodplain, which will reduce future flood heights and secure farms and towns.
Additionally, the reservoirs need to be operated differently. The army’s base reservoir level each year is 56.8 MAF. The army reached that level on Jan. 28, 2011, and then began refilling the reservoirs. That base level leaves only 22 percent of reservoir storage available for any approaching super flood. The base level must be lowered so that the army has more storage space available at the start of each year’s runoff season. In order to achieve that lower base level, larger volumes of water could be evacuated from the reservoirs in April and November into the widened river north of Kansas City. Releasing water during those months would aid barge traffic along the Mississippi, which actually has a viable, economically important barge industry. Also, higher discharges in April and November would come before the spring planting season and after the fall harvest, thus assisting valley farmers.
A new plan should include the conservation of land throughout the Missouri basin. When a post-flood assessment is conducted by federal authorities, it is going to find that the Great Dakota Plow-up of CRP land in recent years contributed mightily to the flood. Thousands of square miles of highly erosive land went from grassland to cropland. CRP acres need to be reinstated to hold back runoff from the big river and its feeder streams. Housing construction and industrial development in the floodplain must end. The high costs of the 2011 flood will be largely the result of ignoring the simple truth that development in a floodplain invites disaster.
A new plan needs to democratize the lower river, making it accessible to all valley residents. A widened river, flowing through its floodplain, would be biologically diverse, aesthetically pleasing and accessible. Hunters, fishers, bird-watchers, boaters, campers, hikers and bicyclists would recreate along that new Missouri. Today, the lower river is confined behind millions of tons of riprap; it flows at an inhospitable speed of six miles per hour; and it is dangerous for boaters, fishers and swimmers, especially off the ends of the pile dikes. The new river would be a river for the many rather than the few in the barge industry.
The river and basin need to be envisioned as a singular living system. A multitude of species live along or within the river and its tributaries, including humans. All of those species are mutually supporting. The various parts of the basin cannot be divorced from one another. The loss of CRP acres in North Dakota negatively affects farmers in the lower valley. Pollution at Sioux City negatively affects fish and fishers at Omaha. Oil spills in the Yellowstone at Billings degrades water quality for those living downstream. The ecological health of the entire system must be part of any management plan. A healthy ecosystem, that is rich in life, will improve human health and well being.
Finally, the future plan must take into consideration climate change. Heavy rainfall events will in all likelihood become more common. The river will consequently become more voluminous. The government engineers will need to implement policies of adaptive management for that new environmental situation. This would include granting the army the authority to oscillate the discharge rates from the upstream dams, even when opposed by the recreational interests in the Dakotas and the barge industry backers in the state of Missouri.