7.9.19MissouriRiverGavinsPointReleases.jpg

The Missouri River overflows its banks at Optimist Park in late May.

Water releases from Gavins Point will remain above average through the summer and as late as November, according to a news release from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"System releases from Gavins Point Dam are currently 70,000 cfs (cubic feet per second), which is more than twice the average release for this time of year. We will maintain Gavins Point releases at this rate to continue evacuating water from the Missouri River Main-stem reservoir system," said John Remus — chief of the Corps Missouri River Basin Water Management Division — in the news release.

Releases are expected to remain at 70,000 cfs for the rest of the month. According to the Corps monthly summary report published July 1, releases are expected to fall to 55,000 cfs in August where they will remain until November.

The Missouri River system, which stretches from Fort Peck dam in Montana to the last dam at Gavins Point near Yankton, S.D., has seen much above-average runoff due to late plains snowmelt, saturated grounds and above-average rainfall finding its way into the system's six reservoirs. Releases from all six dams are set to discharge more predicted above-average runoff before the winter when the Corps aims to have a certain amount of flood storage space available for next spring.

The releases from Gavins Point and above-average precipitation predicted for Washington County over the next few months likely means Missouri River levels near Blair — just under 26 feet Monday morning — will remain high for the foreseeable future.

"Right now, releases are focused on being back at 16.3 million acre feet of flood storage space before the next runoff season," said Eileen Williamson, the Corps Northwestern Division deputy director of public affairs. "Reducing releases would impact that schedule and creating more space would require higher releases."

The entire Missouri River dam system held about 68 million acre feet (maf) of water as of July 2. Nearly 12 maf of the 16.3 in the systems flood control zone was filled. As the Corps attempts to rid the system of the water occupying its flood control storage, that water will flow through Blair in around two to three days.

Though releases look to remain steady according to Corps current projections, there are no guarantees the river near Blair, predicted to fall to around 25 feet by July 21, will remain below flood stage through the summer. Weather will play an important factor.

The National Weather Service currently predicts around a 40- to- 50 percent chance for above average precipitation for Washington County, and northern states along the Missouri River, through October. That possible precipitation could contribute to a predicted 49.9 maf of runoff into the Missouri River above Sioux City, Iowa, this year, an amount which would be second to the 61 maf in 2011 in over a century of record keeping.

Flooding along the river has already hampered agriculture, homes and recreation in Washington County. As such, area residents have expressed frustration over the Corps management of the river.

Herman resident Renee McWilliams, during an April public meeting hosted by the Corps in Sioux City, questioned whether a change to the dam system's water storage and releases would lessen flood risk for those who live along the river. Her home was surrounded by ditch water to the west and the Missouri River to the east in March.

In June, Scott McNew said he thought the Corps had too many areas to focus on. One of his fields along the river on his farm south of Fort Calhoun was flooded at the time.

The Corps is congressionally authorized and required to attend to eight different areas of river management including flood control, navigation, hydropower, water supply, irrigation, water quality control, recreation and fish and wildlife. 

"I'm all about wildlife, save the fish, but what's more important? Me and you eating or seeing a sturgeon fish," McNew said. "I don't know the answers, but I just know somebody with power needs to do something."

Williamson said the Corps has been focused on flood control since March 2018. She said this spring runoff season was unusually wet, not just where water would flow into the Corps six managed dams, but further downstream where no dams exist. She added that the dam system has seen more water flowing into it than the Corps has been releasing and that Nebraska and Iowa would have still seen flooding if the dam system had been empty in March.

"Human life and safety are our first priority," she said. "Current storage and release decisions, as governed by the master manual, are significantly designed around the flood control and navigation purposes."

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