Fort Report: Rivers Run Through It

Jun 21, 2019
Fort Report

A long time ago, I had a job that required me to sit on a river barge all night long.  Using a marine radio, I attempted to hail riverboat pilots as they passed by.  This was a Corps of Engineers project to determine the location of lower water points.  A number of the pilots were helpful to me; others not so much.  I had my river face on, but riverboat banter is not exactly the parlance of a trained economic analyst.  I remembered the response of one pilot in particular––his rich tapestry of colorful language still lingers over the misty waters.

Whether low or high water, rivers can have a mind of their own.  We know this all too well in Nebraska.  In March, we were reminded once again of the power of water. 

This week, I had an extensive meeting with Colonel John Hudson, Omaha District Commander of the U.S. Corps of Engineers, about progress on rebuilding after the flood.  Colonel Hudson confirmed to me that as much damage as there is, there is a bit of good news.  “We’re catching a break,” said the Colonel. “The higher anticipated levels on the Platte River have dropped substantially.”

Like the weather itself, everyone has an opinion about the Corps of Engineers.  This is partly because the Corps balances dam, lock, and canal construction with outdoor recreation and environmental protection, flood control with hydropower generation, and drought protection for farmers with major river management. 

Decades ago, a decision was made to control the Missouri River’s natural tendency to flood twice a year.  We now have six large upstream dams and an engineered downstream channel.  That work enhanced farm production in the river’s valley.  We take the Corps’ complicated balancing act for granted until there is a major weather event.

Since the March floods, the Nebraska Corps has recorded more than 50 breaches in the levee system stretching from south of Omaha down to Kansas City.  From the start, according to Hudson, a chief Corps’ concern has been the major breach at the confluence of the Platte and Missouri, just south of Offutt Air Force Base.  The river blew out the levee on the eastern side of the Missouri and scoured a hole 62-foot deep.  In a major accomplishment, the Corps has now patched this major breach in the L611-614 levee system. 

Further down river are several additional breaches.  Some are days away from being closed; others will take more time.  Due to the large amount of rain we received about three weeks ago, Colonel Hudson informed me that the toughest breach to close is across from the Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) coal power plant.  While the situation has improved with less rainfall, this troublesome breach is still about five to six weeks from being closed.   

Future storms threaten to slow the recovery process, damage the system further, and flood susceptible areas.  Fortunately, several billion dollars in disaster funding for the Corps just passed Congress and was signed into law by the President.  Nevertheless, the Colonel indicated that more funding will likely be needed next year, as the Corps works to get flood management systems back to full strength and height in time for the spring thaw.

The word “Nebraska” comes from the Otoe words for “flat water.”  Our state has more miles of river than any other state.  The Army Corps of Engineers performs its essential work of river management without operational control over the rivers that flow within Nebraska.  Despite their sophisticated cadre of hydrological engineers, the Corps cannot foresee the weather even a few weeks way, so they must simultaneously prepare for both drought and flood.  

Founded in 1802, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is part of the Department of Defense.  So, it has a role in our national security.  Therein lies the complexity—defending lives, defending from floods, defending natural habitat, defending commerce, and ensuring recreational opportunity.  It’s a hard balance to keep and sometimes it evokes some pretty colorful language.