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The leviathan in the Missouri

Posted on: July 30th, 2018
by David Ganje

It is good to be vigilant when dealing with a leviathan of a bureaucracy. It is better however to be pointed with them, carry a big stick, keep notes and exercise financial purse strings. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as a government agency, has been in existence since 1802. It is now and forever shall be. It is a federally created ‘regulatory monopoly.’ The Corps is in effect the world’s largest civil engineering firm. This agency of the Department of Defense is the nation’s largest single producer of hydroelectricity. Hydropower plants and dams are authorized by Congress under the Flood Control Act of 1944, commonly called the “Pick-Sloan Act.” The Act authorized the managing of the Missouri River to provide for flood control, navigation, municipal and industrial water supply, recreation, and hydropower generation.

At the time of Lewis and Clark, the Missouri River was diverse. The river had many channels along with widespread bars, islands, and shallow sloughs. It had natural levees, backwater lakes, oxbows, sandbars and dunes. The Missouri was wide and shallow. A hundred years ago it measured about 2,546 miles in length but now has about 200 miles less due to damning and channelization. Along the Missouri River today the Corps operates a total of 36 generator units capable of producing approximately 2.4 million kilowatts of power.

In an editorial this month Senator Mike Rounds expressed concern about the Corp’s flood management practices. He indicated he will be keeping a close watch on the Corp’s flood control management. This is a polite way of addressing a hardcore problem. The Corps is akin to a government highway department – it is good at constructing highways but is often out of its league when administering the highways, creating good rules of the road, or at establishing operations without causing damage to property owners or the environment. The Corp’s problems are devilishly more serious than the senator suggests. In 2016 the GAO, in a report on the Corp’s operations, concluded that the extent to which the Corps has reviewed or revised current water control manuals is unclear because the Corps did not document its own reviews. The GAO report also concluded that the Corps has revised some water control manuals but that various divisions and districts do not track consistent information about revisions to its manuals, and the extent to which operating manuals have or should be updated is unclear.

The Corp’s own ‘outside consultants’ report that historically the Corps was focused on construction of dams, levees, navigation channels, and other infrastructure. But that future Corp’s operations should be focused on (1) operating, maintaining, rehabilitating, and upgrading existing infrastructure, (2) re-allocating reservoir storage and releases among changing water demands and users, and (3) providing some degree of ecosystem restoration and ecological services in heavily altered riparian and aquatic ecosystems. I submit that the Corps has not yet read this memo by its consultants. By way of example, after preliminary motions a Court of Claims judge this year properly ordered a case to go forward brought by farmers, landowners, and business owners who claim a taking of their property without just compensation in contravention of the Fifth Amendment. This lawsuit is based on actions by the Corps on the Missouri River. The plaintiffs allege that the Corps has changed its management of the river and that the changes caused flooding of their properties.

The Corps has a tendency to do what it pleases unless there is hell to pay. South Dakota has used its disproportionate clout in the recent past to send messages to this leviathan. Controlling the purse strings was the key. Money usually is. A material example of this is the Corp’s continuing attempt to control and manage what it calls ‘surplus water’ in the Missouri River. This is a self-defined quantification of water that does not exist in federal legislation or under the common law of waters in this country. It is an attempt by the Corps to acquire control over water that otherwise belongs to the states and Indian tribes. For a look at my extensive critique of the Corp’s past efforts to grab control of surplus waters see my letter to the Western States Water Council found on my website:

More than mere vigilance will be required, or what you may have now won’t be no more.  Congressional oversight by way of eliminating funding for projects or by way of de-authorizing a project is a good way to manage a federal agency. The risk to upper basin Missouri River states and Indian tribes is that once a quantity of water is regulated and defined by the Corps as surplus water it becomes that much harder to later reinstate the original legal as well as declared beneficial uses of that water. A Prussian general when once asked to notice the beauty of a river nearby, turned and replied ‘an unimportant obstacle.’ The Corps is big brother with all of big brother’s flaws.

David Ganje of Ganje Law Offices practices in the area of natural resources, environmental and commercial law.

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