Hoeven Calls on Corps of Engineers to Improve Flood Control

"We are asking the Corps to reduce the level of Lake Sakakawea by 2.5 feet. If the Corps chooses not to, I want to know how they plan to maintain enough storage capacity to prevent flooding next year."

WASHINGTON – Senator John Hoeven today called on members of the U.S. Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee to initiate a thorough review and analysis of current management practices on the nation’s waterways, including those in North Dakota, with the goal of better flood protection for people and property.

Currently, the Corps’ Annual Operating Plan calls for reducing the surface elevation of Lake Sakakawea to 1,837.5 feet mean sea level, the same elevation as last year. Hoeven, however, expressed concern that plan is not adequate.

“I would like to know the following,” Hoeven said. “Will the Corps reduce the level to 1,835 feet mean sea level, as the state engineer and Water Commission have requested? If not, how will the Corps maintain enough storage capacity to prevent flooding next year and prevent a repeat of 2011?  Who will make these decisions and by what date?

“If the Corps chooses not to reduce the level of Lake Sakakawea by 2.5 feet, I also want to know what specific steps the Corps plans to take to ensure Bismarck-Mandan and the surrounding area are not flooded again.  Specifically, if we have precipitation next year similar to what we experienced this year, how much water can be moved out of the reservoirs between mid-March and mid-May without causing flooding as was the case this year?  Who will be responsible for final decisions about protecting the state capital and the surrounding areas and when will those decisions be made?

Hoeven told committee members that parts of the nation and North Dakota face an historic wet cycle, with impacts being felt in North Dakota in Minot, Bismarck-Mandan, Devils Lake, Valley City, Fargo and other North Dakota communities. Runoff along the Missouri River above Sioux City, Iowa, has increased significantly each of the past five years.  While drought conditions prevailed earlier, precipitation reached historic proportions in 2011. Precipitation levels were so high in 2011 that even a substantial decline in 2012 levels would leave many areas vulnerable to flooding.

“In light of unprecedented flooding in North Dakota and across the nation, this year’s floods should compel us to review flood control options from top to bottom, question old assumptions and incorporate this year’s historically high precipitation into next year’s flood control plan,” Hoeven said.

To bolster the case, Hoeven cited two situations in North Dakota as examples of where high water overwhelmed the dams and levees that engineers and residents thought were adequate to protect their communities.


First, the existing dam system along the Missouri River failed to prevent flooding in Bismarck-Mandan as well as several locations further downstream. Excessive spring rains and elevated levels of snowmelt combined to saturate the ground and resulted in unprecedented runoff into the river. The existing flood control system could not accommodate so much water so quickly.


“In light of 2011, we need to determine whether the existing Missouri River Manual and Annual Operating Plans are sufficiently able to address flooding along the entire Missouri River system,” Hoeven said. “We need to understand the importance of operating in a wet cycle and take steps to bolster flood protection in the near term and the long term. We need to account for the effects of major rains up and down the Missouri River and how those events affect the Army Corps ability to raise and lower reservoir levels throughout the entire river system.”


Hoeven and other Missouri River senators earlier this year formed the Missouri River Working Group, a bipartisan group that is collaborating to promote better coordination among states to manage the river to prevent flooding and protect people and property. The group sent a letter to Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Ranking Member James Inhofe (R-OK) calling for a formal review into the Army Corps of Engineers’ management of the nation’s flood control system.


The second situation Hoeven cited was flooding in the Minot region. The dams in Canada, which North Dakotans believed would prevent the Souris River from ever flooding, could not hold back the water that flowed from melting snow and massive spring rains.  Hoeven told the committee that more than 4,000 homes in Minot were damaged or destroyed by Souris River flooding.


“We need answers to the same questions for the Minot area as for Bismarck-Mandan,” Hoeven said. “We are working with Col. Michael Price, commander of the St. Paul District, regarding the Army Corps’ plan of action to ensure the 2011 flooding is not repeated in 2012.  We need to understand specifically how the plan will protect the Minot area in the event of high precipitation next year.  Who is responsible for making the final decision on how to protect Minot next spring and when will that decision be made?” 

“We need to improve our flood control efforts to save lives, protect property and preserve the livelihood of thousands of North Dakotans and millions of Americans,” Hoeven said. “We need answers to the vital questions I’ve put forward and appropriate and timely action from the Corps.”

On Wednesday, Senator Hoeven will meet with Army Corps of Engineers Commander of the Northwest Division John McMahon to pursue the questions he posed in the committee hearing. On Friday, Senator Hoeven has arranged a meeting in Minot with Senator Conrad and David Miller, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration, to discuss a comprehensive flood protection plan for the city and the role of the Hazard Mitigation Grand Program.