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Forum editorial: Criticism of corps is on point

The release of internal emails that passed among top U.S. Army Corps of Engineers personnel strongly suggests the impacts of the flood disaster on the Missouri River this spring and summer could have been less severe. Residents in harm's way coul...

The release of internal emails that passed among top U.S. Army Corps of Engineers personnel strongly suggests the impacts of the flood disaster on the Missouri River this spring and summer could have been less severe. Residents in harm's way could have had more time to prepare for record-high water.

Emails obtained through an Associated Press Freedom of Information Act request revealed the corps knew it was going to be a "huge water year" and possibly "one of the wettest years on record." That assessment was made in late April, before torrential rains in Montana. After the historic rainfalls across the watersheds of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers, the corps sounded the alarm. But it was too late for downstream residents to buy flood insurance or build adequate protection. The result was a panicky scramble by state and local officials to throw up clay levees and sandbag walls, which offered some protection, but not enough.

The corps has been defending its river management, saying it went by the book. But that claim raises the questions: Why were warnings about record water levels delayed until it was practically too late to prepare? Why were local and state officials kept out of the loop and not told the situation was dire before the rains came?

Early finger-pointing at the corps consisted mostly of trying to pin the blame on a federal agency rather than conceding that years of development along the river and the incessant demand to manage Lake Sakakawea behind Garrison Dam for recreation were partly to blame for the extensive flood damage. But those local and state failures do not excuse the corps for sitting on data that could have brought an earlier start to flood preparations.

No one is saying the Missouri River flood of 2011 could have been avoided simply because the corps announced earlier high water was coming. Snowmelt and huge rainfalls conspired to generate a flood of historic proportions. Reservoir and river channel capacities would have been exceeded no matter when the corps said the flood was coming.

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But the corps' internal communications stick the onus on the agency for sitting on information that was vital to downstream communities in the water's path. It appears to be both an operations and bureaucratic blunder.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper's Editorial Board.

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