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So the finger-pointing at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers begins.

I’m not a particular fan of the Corps of Engineers, but I think the growing tide of blame is largely misguided. The simple fact is that this is a gargantuan (I almost wrote titanic) water year in the Missouri-Mississippi basin, from Dillon, Mont., to Memphis and New Orleans.

The Corps of Engineers is desperately trying to maintain control of one of the biggest water episodes on the fourth longest river in the world, the 10th most powerful, a clogged and waterlogged drainage basin that collects the runoff of all or part of 31 states and two Canadian provinces. The Missouri-Mississippi basin embraces fully 41 percent of the continental United States. It’s on the rampage this year. The corps is doing everything it can to minimize the damage from Helena and Bozeman to New Orleans, a distance of 3,709 miles. It’s a war on many fronts, and there is going to be some collateral damage, including here in North Dakota.

The corps is not the culprit. The flood of 2011 is nature’s doing (an act of God, as the insurance industry puts it), and at this point the corps is just trying to remain part of the equation to lessen the catastrophe. It’s like riding a bicycle down a very steep hill and pedaling with all your might just to maintain the illusion that you are in control, or trying to ski along the crest of an avalanche as it cascades down a mountainside. Blame the corps if you want, but if there were no dams on the Missouri River, Kirkwood Mall would be under water and people would be wading through the streets of Kansas City and St. Louis.

Damning the corps is easy, of course, and also kind of satisfying. For one thing, the Corps is handy, it’s a faceless monolithic abstraction, and best of all it’s the federal government, the universal whipping boy of the disgruntled. Besides, we North Dakotans have a longstanding legitimate quarrel with the corps, which manages the Missouri River more for the benefit of the dying barge industry below Sioux City than for the people of the Upper Basin.

Still, it is worth remembering three things. One: the corps itself is tyrannized by the outdated Flood Control Act of 1944, which gives the agency very mixed (and mutually exclusive) directives on how to manage the Missouri River. Two: Now, in the midst of this catastrophe, the corps has to try to manage the entire Missouri-Mississippi system on the utilitarian principle of the greatest good for the greatest number, or (more precisely) the least damage to the largest population and commercial centers. Hard as it is for us to accept, given the magnitude of the system-wide flood, Bismarck and Mandan are among the corps’ lesser concerns. Three: blame whom you will, but at this point there isn’t a darn thing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can do to help Bismarck and Mandan.

There is only one question left for the Army now. Can the corps manage the system to release as much water as possible in the next few weeks (without devastating Bismarck-Mandan, Fort Yates, Pierre, Yankton, Sioux City, Omaha, St. Joseph, Kansas City, and St. Louis) so that it can open up enough storage capacity on the six mainstem dams in time to hold back and slow down the Montana snowmelt? It’s a race against time.  

Of course the corps could have released much more water from the six dams over the winter to brace the Upper Basin for “the perfect storm” of 200 percent snowpack and extensive late spring rains in Montana, but the flood along the middle and lower Mississippi River earlier this spring, which threatened Memphis and New Orleans and flooded hundreds of thousands of acres of land, forced the corps to hold back as much water as it possibly could in the Upper Basin.

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It was a gamble and a political choice. The gamble was that the 2011 Upper Basin conditions would not quite overwhelm the system. That gamble was lost in Montana rains that could not have been predicted. The choice was to protect the large downstream population centers to the possible, but not certain, detriment of the less densely populated upstream communities. If the dikes in Bismarck-Mandan hold for the next two months, that decision will be vindicated, however frustrating it will seem to those who lose their homes or spend the summer as high ground refugees.

The almost daily arrival of moderate to heavy rains is making me nervous. Not only because my garden is now a moist mass of weeds and the streets of Bismarck are apparently dissolving pothole by pothole, but all that water has to go somewhere. I’m no hydrologist but in my simplistic thinking it goes something like this: The six Pick-Sloan dams are all chock full. The land is saturated. Heavy rains in eastern Montana are what caused the flood in the first place. These new rains — including last Sunday night’s magnificent thunderstorm — are topping up an already brimming reservoir storage system. And the entire Montana snowmelt is still to come. We have been assured by experts that the heavy rains are not making much of a difference, but twice in the last week the street in front of my house has turned into a kind of paved creek. These rains have blanketed much of western and central North Dakota. Lake Oahe is full and backing up. Lake Sakakawea is full and spilling. It seems to me that our problems are being compounded — perhaps disastrously — by immoderate June rains.

As I wrote this (Wednesday morning), Fort Peck was taking in 79,000 cubic feet per second, and releasing 65,800. Garrison was taking in 180,000 cfs and releasing just 140,100. “Just!” Oahe in: 156,000 cfs. Oahe out: 152,200 cfs. Trouble ahead.

The drama is deepening. We’re in a cruel false lull, I think.

(Clay Jenkinson is the Theodore Roosevelt Center scholar at Dickinson State University, as well as Distinguished Scholar of the Humanities at Bismarck State College. He can be reached at Jeffysage@aol.com or through his website, Jeffersonhour.org.)

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