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Weekly Column: Managing the Missouri

As the snow melts away and spring sets in throughout South Dakota, the Missouri River is beginning to swell. For some, this brings back memories of the catastrophic 2011 flood which forced more than 4,000 families out of their homes, resulted in five deaths and caused more than $2 billion in damage to infrastructure, businesses and fertile ag land. Entire communities were devastated by the flood and largely left to fend for themselves.

Recovery took months, and citizens are still paying for damages caused by the flood. While numerous studies and reports have analyzed the flood and looked for ways to prevent a similar catastrophe in the future, I question whether we are truly better prepared to deal with such an event today.

As Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Subcommittee on Superfund, Waste Management, and Oversight, part of my job includes conducting oversight of agencies within the EPW Committee’s jurisdiction, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for managing the Missouri River. I recently held a hearing in North Sioux City entitled, Five Years from the Flood: Oversight of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Management of the Missouri River and Suggestions for Improvement.  

During the hearing, we heard from various stakeholders, including a state official, conservationist, tribal representative, district official and an Army Corps representative, to learn about the improvements and changes that have been made regarding the Army Corps’ management of the river. Unfortunately, what we found is that despite numerous studies that recommended changes in how the Corps’ manages the river, they have done little to address these changes.

Part of Congress’ job is to give federal agencies direction that helps them make better decisions for the American people. In 2014, just before I took office, Congress passed a water resources reform bill, which directed the Army Corps to conduct studies and make improvements to its soil moisture and snowpack monitoring system. Yet, as we learned at the hearing, little has been done in the two years since the bill was signed into law. The Army Corps has signaled it does not have proper funding to take such action, but to receive funding it must make an appropriations request to Congress, which it has not done. For two years, the Corps has failed to act on putting together a plan to better monitor the Missouri River. This is unacceptable.


In the five years since the flood, South Dakotans living and working along the Missouri River have largely recovered from the months-long disaster that flooded the region and threatened the livelihood of communities along the river. The 2011 flood was an unprecedented event – it was a perfect storm of record snow melt, torrential rainfall in the spring and already-saturated soil. While some flooding and damage was likely inevitable, the Army Corps failed to mitigate its effects or provide citizens with proper notice, which led to preventable and unnecessary destruction. As revealed at the field hearing, there is room for improvement within the Army Corps to make certain they manage the Missouri River in an appropriate and responsible manner. 


I will continue to monitor the Corps’ actions and hold them accountable, and will work to make sure they take steps to protect the river’s many users. This begins with proper tools to monitor the water levels, soil moisture and snow pack. It also includes a well-founded understanding of the needs of all stakeholders: state and local governments, landowners, ag producers and recreational users, all of whom rely upon proper management of the river.


Five years after the 2011 flood, South Dakotans deserve certainty that the federal government has taken steps to prevent a similar disaster from happening in the future. That responsibility lies with the Army Corps.