Gazette opinion: Missouri River plan must protect Montana values

2011-10-23T00:10:00Z Gazette opinion: Missouri River plan must protect Montana values The Billings Gazette
October 23, 2011 12:10 am

A stream of senators from states along the Missouri River called for immediate changes in how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages the river at a hearing Tuesday on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Max Baucus offered a different perspective. Montanans also suffered with flooding this summer, but Baucus said the worst flood year ever isn’t reason to throw away the river plan. The master manual recognizes such things as recreation in Montana and barge traffic in Missouri as priorities in addition to flood control.

The Corps of Engineers has said the likelihood of a reoccurrence of a flood of this year’s magnitude is 0.2 percent, Baucus told the committee.

Buzz Mattelin agreed with Baucus, although the Missouri River drowned his crops this summer.

A third-generation Montana farmer, Mattelin grows wheat, barley and sugar beets on the Missouri river bottoms 80 miles downstream of Fort Peck Dam. He also represents irrigators on the Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee.

“With the well-vetted revision completed in 2003, the master manual has provided 50 years of stability in a contentious basin,” Mattelin said.

“The master manual provides an equitable path to management of the system for flood control, hydropower, navigation, water supply, irrigation and recreation and wildlife.”

A day before the Senate hearing, Gov. Brian Schweitzer clashed with the governor of Nebraska, who had invited all Missouri River governors to Omaha to talk about flood control. Schweitzer invited Montana journalists to listen to the meeting as he joined it by telephone.

Like the downstream senators, the governors of those states want the corps to draw down upstream reservoirs now to make room for holding enough spring runoff to prevent flooding in their states.

But draining Montana reservoirs now would leave our state high and dry. The water is valuable to fisheries, wildlife, boating, agriculture and all the people who earn a living from those resources and uses.

Fortunately, the corps has made a reasonable response to the great floods.

“There were a lot of people in the basin interested in us evacuating that water (from reservoirs) this year,” Jody Farhat of the Missouri River Management Division told The Gazette. “We didn’t make that decision. Next year we’ll be operating as we always have.”

On June 15, Fort Peck Dam held its highest water level ever — 2,252 feet above sea level. Water release has continued and will bring the level to 2,237 feet sometime in November.

“You would hardly manage the next year based on the worst year in 150,” Schweitzer told The Gazette, noting that Fort Peck hasn’t been full for 48 of the past 50 years.

During years of drought, the head of the lake moved miles away from docks. Lakeside businesses were left far from the receding water’s edge.

Before the great flood of 2011, downstream states sought to have the river managed to benefit other interests. For example, water was released from an already low Fort Peck Lake to ensure that Missouri would have enough water to float barges.

The corps should thoroughly, scientifically evaluate flood control systems along the Missouri. It should not make changes on political whims.

Flood control isn’t the only priority for river management, and reservoir levels aren’t the only tools needed to mitigate flood damage.

Individuals as well as government at all levels must share the responsibility. Reducing the damage from future flood years will require a comprehensive approach.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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