Thanks to a dry fall across the northern Plains, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is months ahead of schedule in releasing water from reservoirs on the upper Missouri River to guard against another spring of record-setting flooding.
Jody Farhat, chief of the corps' Missouri River Basin Water Management Division, said by the end of December, reservoir levels will be where corps officials had initially aimed to hit in early March. That should leave enough room in the six reservoirs it controls to hold water from the winter snowmelt and spring rainfall, she said.
"It's still very early in the season, and a couple of good snowstorms across the mountains and upper Great Plains could move us in a different direction," Farhat said. "But right now, it all bodes well. We're tracking ahead of schedule."
Creating space in the Missouri's reservoirs is one way the corps is trying to keep the river in check and pacify hundreds of outraged riverside residents who blamed the agency for not being better prepared for this spring's mix of heavy rains and melting snow.
In the final months of 2010, the corps didn't create the same space in the river's reservoirs because Farhat said the agency had no reason to do so. But a heavy snowfall and abnormally heavy rains in April and May combined to form the highest spring runoff since 1898, swelling the river to capacity and forcing the corps to release the maximum amount of water possible from several dams instead of using them to control downstream flooding.
The corps places the odds of a repeat at 0.2 percent. Still, it has hosted numerous hearings _ both formal and informal, and for both legislators and residents _ to explain went wrong this past spring. Some of the meetings got heated as angry homeowners, hundreds of whom were forced from their homes by the rising waters, booed and shouted at corps officials.
An independent review of the corps' actions has been under way for two months, and its findings are set to be released Tuesday.
"They looked at all the information we had and the decisions we made, and they're going to tell us how they viewed our operations," said Farhat, who added that the corps is eager to hear the panel's findings.
With the flooding came huge bills: The North Dakota Legislature approved more than $600 million in disaster relief last month that includes money for low-interest home loans, road construction and public works repairs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Risk Management Agency last week said that $114 million in claims have been paid for flooding damage on 436,000 acres along the river downstream from Gavins Point Dam on the Nebraska-South Dakota border.
South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard is among the state officials who have asked the corps to draw down one of the corps' reservoirs, North Dakota's Lake Sakakawea, by an extra 2.5 feet by next spring. He has also called on the corps to improve the accuracy of its runoff predictions, as well as its communication with residents who live along the river.
Those residents said this past spring they weren't told of the impending flood until a day or two before the water arrived. This year, the corps plans twice-monthly conference calls beginning in January to keep states apprised of flooding risks.
So far, it does not appear the extra space will be needed. Al Dutcher, Nebraska's state climatologist, said snowfall in the Plains states is far below last year. Last year, some snowpacks in Montana and North Dakota were between 10 and 12 inches. This year, even the snowiest areas have only seen four to five inches. Little snow has stuck.
"Based on what's happened so far this winter season, I would rate the flood risk as below average," Dutcher said. "And the main emphasis for that statement is that we don't see any significant snow accumulations yet."
But Farhat said there are other reasons to create the space for the water, including a flood-control system that's still recovering from last year's high water.
"The levees haven't been repaired," she said. "We're trying to provide some additional cushion."