Evidence of the Missouri River flooding of 2011 remains apparent in southwest Iowa but the head of a grassroots organization working with flood victims says considerable progress has been made in recovery efforts. Leo Ettleman is the president of the group Responsible River Management. “Returning after the flood, there wasn’t a whole lot of positive things to look at,” Ettleman says. “To see where we are today, it’s really amazing how much recovery has taken place, and where we are right now.”
Four years ago, Ettleman’s organization was at the forefront of post-flooding issues. Areas where levees breached in June of 2011 — mainly southwest of Hamburg and northwest of Percival — are covered with sand and are uninhabited. But Ettleman says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has addressed some of the levee issues in the years since the flooding. “There were large scour holes on the inside levees that left the levees in jeopardy of blowouts in later years,” Ettleman says. “There were some setbacks, where they moved the levees a ways to get on more firm ground and get some conveyance. They did relieve a few pinch points from the original design. The new levees that were constructed were 60-year upgrades — a lot better slopes. The seepage firms on the dry side are a lot bigger and wider, a lot better structures.”
He says the Corps has changed its strategy regarding releases at the Gavins Point Dam in South Dakota. Heavy releases from the dam in the winter of 2011 were a major issue in the summer flooding. “The upper basin above the reservoirs,” he says, “was well below normal as far as snowpack goes this past winter. There is quite a bit of water in the reservoirs now–approximately three million feet into the flood control zone now. But, that’s normal for this time of year, because there’s a tremendous amount of water going into Gavins, into Garrison (Dam), as well as Fort Peck, because of the mountain snowpack which is reaching there now. So, they’re not really that bad off.”
While much attention is given to Gavins Point, Ettleman says the fact is, three northerly dams control much of the water releases. “Gavins Point Dam, Randall and Big Ben are simply a pipeline,” Ettleman says. “The big three — Fort Peck, Oahe and Garrison — hold a tremendous amount of water. They hold the bulk of the water. We really need to see what gets released from Oahe, because what’s released there gets flushed on out.” In the years since the flooding, Ettleman says the Corps has done a better job of inviting farmers and other residents to the table regarding river management issues. Still, concerns remain.
“When it comes to the management of the reservoirs,” he says, “even as recently as this spring’s annual operating meeting in Council Bluffs, they manage the reservoirs for a drought. A drought will last from five to 10 years and they have to have enough to last throughout that drought.” Hydropower is the “800-pound gorilla in the room,” he adds. They have to have that electricity produced in the area, otherwise, it has to be purchased from somewhere else. Ettleman says the Corps is monitoring soil saturation and water retention from snowfall during the winter months.