Stress on the river with winter on the way

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Today, the calendar says it’s November, but the Missouri River that flows by Yankton insists that it isn’t.

The river lies, you see.

Go out to Gavins Point Dam and witness the chaotic deceit. The river is still roaring through the dam at 80,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), which is unheard of at this time of the year. (It’s not as mesmerizing as it was in 2011, when discharges at Gavins Point reached 160,000 cfs, but that only lasted a few weeks before the angry tide began to recede.) Gavins Point has been racing since the bomb cyclone in March as other major storms since have fed the flow for months.

However, maybe all this is telling us a new kind of truth.

I wasn’t there personally, but it was reported there was some stress in the air last week when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) held a public meeting in Sioux City, Iowa. It was one of several meetings held throughout the river system to talk about the state of the river and its management plans. That, of course, explains the stress.

It’s the byproduct of what has been a punishing year on the Missouri River basin. Massive storms and record precipitation will do that.

In such circumstances, the friction between the Upper Missouri and the Lower Missouri – that is, everything north of Gavins Point Dam versus everything south of it – becomes much more pronounced. Recently, wild weather swings, ranging from record flooding to record drought (in the space of one year, mind you), have further aggravated the different priorities on the different ends of the river.

But what if this is the new normal on the basin?

If you accept the probability that climate change is impacting our weather and our lives, we must at least consider the idea that we’re now facing a much different river system than the one that was tamed and regulated by dams more than 60 years ago.

Where does the current mess end? Corps officials have declared in no uncertain terms that releases must wind down when the system freezes for winter in a few weeks. That may take down the releases and soothe the river to its winter state, but it doesn’t really end the problem. Instead, it will probably postpone things until next year, when the new snowmelt and runoff will most certainly thaw out the problems again to some degree.

What that probably means for those downstream from Gavins Point Dam is more of what they saw in 2019, and they saw way too much in 2019: flooded land, drowned highways, breached levies and more. It’s produced frustration and anger at public meetings, and questions during telephone conferences (and I actually did hear this one this past summer) about why the USACE couldn’t just shut down Gavins Point releases for a few days to give the southern reach a chance to drain out. Closer to Yankton, it’s meant that the swollen James, Vermillion and Big Sioux rivers have drained more slowly because of the high level on the Missouri River.

Throw into that whatever the looming winter brings, and next year figures to be another round of headaches and uncertainty.

Again, is this the new normal? Is this what the river system must deal with now thanks to changes in the climate? If so, is the dam system up to the even more immense challenges of balancing the upstream and downstream interests?

So far, frankly, the answers don’t seem promising. Ask the people at Dakota Dunes or the Omaha area or anywhere in Missouri. Ask anyone who has a home on riverfront property where once no one dreamed of building because of the unpredictable river.

The unpredictability has returned to the Missouri River basin in wild force.

Whether it’s a passing trend (like a 500-year flood) or a new normal (like a 500-year flood that happens every four or five years) remains to be seen.

This year, we’ve seen plenty. But there may be even more in store (or in storage) as the race to evacuate the water from the reservoirs just seems like a losing cause with each passing day. And winter is closing in too fast.