May 11 2012
By Cody Winchester
Rep. Kristi Noem on Thursday introduced legislation that would require the Army Corps of Engineers to do a better job of notifying the public when it determines that runoff in the Missouri River basin could be abnormally high.
The corps, which manages the six dams along the river, has faced sharp criticism for its response to heavy rainfall and high snowpack in early 2011 that led to record flooding along the river. An Argus Leader review of thousands of pages of internal emails last year found that corps officials were warned early of the danger, but by the time they moved to evacuate the reservoirs, it was too late.
State officials estimate that damage in South Dakota from the flood will top $75 million, based on disaster grants and Small Business Administration loans.
“While we can’t control the weather, we can improve our ability to prepare and respond to it,” Noem said in a news release. “My legislation creates a system of communication to facilitate increased information sharing between those that monitor our waters, our elected officials and those impacted by flooding.”
In addition to an annual operating plan, the corps makes monthly forecasts of snowpack and stream runoff.
Noem’s legislation would require the corps’ chief engineer to issue a public notice within a week of determining that projected runoff will reach the “upper scenario” — in the top 10 percent or 25 percent of average runoff levels. It also would require consultation with states, tribes and local governments.
Corps spokeswoman Monique Farmer said the corps does its best to keep the public informed by using press releases, social media and replays of twice-monthly conference calls with local stakeholders. One of the recommendations of an external panel tabbed to review the corps’ actions during the flood was that the agency improve its communication with the public.
“The Corps of Engineers has really tried to take a lot of the feedback that we’ve gotten from the public ... I think we’ve taken that to heart,” Farmer said.
In a statement from Noem’s office, Fort Pierre Public Works director Brad Lawrence, who warned officials in 2011 of a coming “Biblical flood,” acknowledged that communication has improved.
But “there isn’t a metric or yardstick to gauge whether that communication is responsive to the current situation on the Missouri River system,” he said. “This legislation gives us that yardstick.”
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