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Flooding Remains a Concern for South Dakota Communities

South Dakota residents continue to share with me their concerns about flooding and high water levels in many of our rivers and lakes. My team and I are keeping a close watch on the Corps’ management of the Missouri River, and the rivers that feed into the Missouri including the James and the Big Sioux. This is especially important as major rain and snow events continue to wreak havoc in South Dakota and across the plains, causing significant flooding throughout the region.         

I am speaking regularly with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about their management of the river system. I recently held a meeting with the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, R.D. James, and with Brigadier General Peter Helmlinger, commander of the Northwestern Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to discuss my concerns about high water levels throughout the state that are swelling the Missouri River system.

Based on the Corps’ own published reports and forecasts, I remain very concerned about continued flooding in 2019. In part due to the recent blizzard and the “bomb cyclone” that hit the Midwest in March, flooding is occurring in communities along the James River and the Big Sioux River.  Following the Army Corps’ recent public meeting in Sioux City, a Missouri Basin River Forecast Center hydrologist said low-lying areas along the James River, Big Sioux River and Little Sioux River should expect periodic moderate flooding as temperatures rise and snow begins to melt. Already, the James River from the Aberdeen area to Yankton is experiencing major flooding that is expected to last through mid-to-late April, at a minimum. The Big Sioux River is around three feet over flood stage in Brookings, one foot over flood stage in Watertown and around four feet over flood stage in the Sioux Falls area.  These rivers flow into the Missouri just south of Gavins Point Dam, and the Corps must take into account these levels when determining flows upstream.

When I’ve been talking to the Corps, my message has been that the best chance we have of minimizing flooding along the entire river system is to maintain moderate flows out of Gavins Point Dam. Moderate increases out of Gavins Point would minimize damage now that the water has receded south of us in Nebraska and Iowa, and would allow us to start draining water out of the upstream dams, including Fort Randall and Oahe. This will make room in those dams for the inevitable snowmelt and any rain events in the coming months, as there remains a large amount of plains and mountain snowpack north and west of us that hasn’t melted yet, with snow in the forecast for Montana for the foreseeable future.

Since coming to the Senate, I’ve pushed the Corps to implement the snowpack monitoring system that was recommended after the 2011 flood and included in a 2014 water resources bill. Last year, I was able to include a provision in the Energy and Water Appropriations bill that authorized the Corps to access its existing unused funds to implement a mountain snowpack monitoring system. This system still has not been installed, but the Corps has confirmed to me they have authorized funding for Phase I of the installation of this system. I will continue to push for installation of Phase I this year and for full completion—which includes over 240 monitoring sites—next year, so South Dakotans and our downstream neighbors can finally have a system that accurately forecasts snowmelt effects on the Missouri River basin.

South Dakotans are all too familiar with the devastating impact flooding can have when the Corps does not properly manage the river system. I will continue to hold the Corps accountable to make sure they are managing releases based on flood control and being fully transparent with their release forecasts. I’ll continue to keep South Dakotans updated on any new information we receive from the Corps as the spring and summer seasons continue.