In US Breadbasket – Can Dams Hold Climate Fueled Floods?

March 22, 2019

Between Trump tariffs and Trump climate denial, farmers getting crushed across the Grain Belt.

Meanwhile, can infrastructure keep up with Climate extremes? Dams built on the Missouri were designed, literally, for different planet.

New York Times:

There were no good choices for John Remus, yet he had to choose.

Should he try to hold back the surging Missouri River but risk destroying a major dam, potentially releasing a 45-foot wall of water? Or should he relieve the pressure by opening the spillway, purposefully adding to the flooding of towns, homes and farmland for hundreds of miles.

Mr. Remus controls an extraordinary machine — the dams built decades ago to tame a river system that drains parts of 10 states and two Canadian provinces. But it was designed for a different era, a time before climate change and the extreme weather it can bring.

“It’s human nature to think we are masters of our environment, the lords of creation,” said Mr. Remus, who works for the United States Army Corps of Engineers. But there are limits, he said. And the storm last week that caused him so much trouble was beyond what his network of dams can control.

“It was not designed to handle this,” he said.

The storm, the “bomb cyclone” that struck the upper Midwest, dumped its rain onto frozen soil, which acted less like dirt and more like concrete. Instead of being absorbed, water from the rain and melted snow raced straight into the Missouri River and its tributaries.

Devastating flooding hit Missouri, Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska. Near Omaha, one-third of Offutt Air Force Base was inundated, including a runway. One Missouri River tributary, the Little Sioux River, rose almost 16 feet in one day.

And early last Thursday, the Niobrara River smashed through the nearly century-old Spencer Dam while pushing huge chunks of ice downriver. By the end of the day, the Niobrara and other tributaries had filled the reservoir behind the Gavins Point Dam, near Yankton, South Dakota, and Mr. Remus faced his decision.

Gavins Point is relatively small, not designed to hold back that kind of inflow. But losing the dam would be catastrophic.

To save Gavins Point, he ordered its spillways opened. At its peak, 100,000 cubic feet of water per second, the same as Niagara Falls, poured into a river already surging toward record heights.

“We filled up our bucket, and the spigot kept running,” Mr. Remus said. The results of last week’s storm are still evident: As of Wednesday, at least three people had been killed and there were emergency declarations in four states.

Few people hold sway over as much water as Mr. Remus, the chief of the Army Corps’ Missouri River Basin Water Management Division. He operates six massive dams that help shape and define a river stretching more than 2,000 miles through the American heartland.

His decisions affect the lives of countless communities and ecosystems — the cities, factories and power plants that draw water from the river; the endangered species that nest on its sandbars; the farmers who cultivate its floodplains.

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3 Responses to “In US Breadbasket – Can Dams Hold Climate Fueled Floods?”

  1. rabiddoomsayer Says:

    Climate change projections are all in the form of trends, averages and so on. Problem is; this will leave us woefully underprepared for the inevitable “events”. Liveability is determined more by extremes than by averages.


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