Missouri River Flooding

The Missouri River floods fields in Iowa and Nebraska, south of Bartlett, Iowa, on Monday, June 13, 2011. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Some people who’ve been in a war zone jump years later when they hear strange noises.

People who spent much of 2011 in the Missouri River flood zone in Nebraska and other downstream states could be forgiven for feeling a bit jumpy as another round of high water heads their way.

The advice from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Omaha: Keep your cool. This time we can hold back water in reservoirs in Montana and the Dakotas.

“We have plenty of storage capacity,” Jody Farhat, chief of Missouri River basin management, said  Monday. “As you know, because of the drought, the reservoirs are down pretty significantly.”

But heavy rain in South Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska -- and the prospect of more rain through much of this week -- had corps officials scrambling over the weekend to switch strategies on the fly from drought to flood.

At least for the time being, Job One has gone from providing navigation water to compensating for the Big Sioux, the Nemaha, the James, the Nishnabotna and other rampaging tributaries that enter the Missouri south of South Dakota and south of the last corps flood control structure at Gavins Point.

The 180-degree turn comes as river bottom farmers and 2011 flooding victims Leo Ettleman of Percival, Iowa, and Scott Olson of Tekamah plant crops next to the windrows of sand left over from the 2011 flood.

Yes, Ettleman said, the weather does seem to be more volatile than usual.

“I have no idea whether it’s cyclical or what,” he said. “The storms are just more severe, the tornadoes are more severe, the big storms are more widespread over an area. It just goes from one extreme to the other.”

“The drought should be over,” Olson said, tongue in cheek, as he awaited further flooding developments on his side of the river.

Head shaking over the implausibility of a flood-drought-flood progression didn’t capture the entire mood of the moment.

That’s because river dwellers and river managers are monitoring conditions on some 40 miles of levees -- rebuilt south of Omaha after the last flood -- where dirt is fresh, grass has failed to establish itself as a levee erosion barrier, and water is expected to creep up on fragile surfaces before receding.

“That’s what we’re watching,” said Kim Thomas, chief of the corps’ readiness branch in Omaha. “We’re sending teams out to look at that.”

Meanwhile, the corps is cranking down on releases from Gavins Point, where the flood surge of 2011 reached a dull roar and 160,000 cubic feet per second during the worst of the 2011 inundation.

This time around, the faucet is being turned down gradually from 24,000 cubic feet per second to 21,000 cubic feet per second on Sunday, 18,000 on Monday, 15,000 on Tuesday and 12,000 on Wednesday.

“We’re doing what we can for flooding right now,”  Farhat said.

And the corps has plenty of maneuvering room upstream from Gavins Point, because it has its normal 16.3 million acre-feet of flood storage, plus 6.7 million extra acre- feet as a consequence of the 2012 drought.

In 2011, a combination of heavy snow melt and spring rain had reservoirs brimful and unable to hold back a deluge.

However, a more flexible 2013 situation can’t compensate for what happens south of the last dam. And for now, Farhat said, “each of the individual tributaries is putting out more water than is coming out of the main stem system. The Little Sioux (in Iowa) is expected to peak at 40,000.”

The tributary point, which bears on the soundness of rebuilt levees, is not lost on Ettleman and Olson, one of the plaintiffs in a pending lawsuit arising from the previous flood.

“There’s no reason to think a levee will breech anywhere,” Ettleman said. “There’s just a little bit of concern about the pressure, the water pressure against the new structures.”

He farms next to one of the rebuilt levees and has crop ground a quarter-mile from another.

“It’s just fresh dirt,” he said. “It hasn’t had a chance to settle."

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Reach Art Hovey at 402-473-7223 or at ahovey@journalstar.com


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