The Fight to Tame a Swelling River With Dams That May Be Outmatched by Climate Change

By on March 22, 2019

From NY 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.

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