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OUR OPINION: Corps shows flexibility on managing the Missouri

Earthquakes are an uncommon problem throughout much of the U.S. And maybe that's why the Army Corps of Engineers had a tough time being flexible once the political ground shifted beneath its feet.

Earthquakes are an uncommon problem throughout much of the U.S. And maybe that's why the Army Corps of Engineers had a tough time being flexible once the political ground shifted beneath its feet.

But the Corps at last is starting to adapt. That's good news for North Dakota because while "political ground" is a metaphor, the Corps' actions should lower Bismarck's real-life flood risk.

The Corps announced last week that it would be more flexible in 2012 about managing the Missouri River to prevent floods.

Only a week earlier, the Corps had announced that despite a request from North Dakota and other affected states, the agency would not lower water levels on Lake Sakakawea to increase storage capacity. That decision was widely denounced because it seemed to validate the stereotype that the Corps is hidebound and refuses to listen.

After all, the Corps had seen floods drench Bismarck and other long-dry Missouri River cities this year. Furthermore, the Corps had been feeling the heat of significant anger. A series of public hearings about the flooding proved unusually contentious: A Nov. 1 gathering in Bismarck for example, drew 250 people and degenerated into shouting when the Corps seemingly refused to acknowledge the crowd's concerns.

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"Corps flunks hearing test," the Bismarck Tribune headlined its editorial after the event.

As important, Congress has been weighing in, and not in the Corps' favor. Most years, the states' individual Missouri River interests pull congressmen in different directions, with downstream representatives favoring navigation and their upstream counterparts pressing for flood control and recreation.

But that's not happening this year. In an important change, congressmen from up and down the river are urging the Corps to make flood control its top priority.

Only Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer publicly disagrees, saying Montana's recreation industry would suffer. But when the public weighs the saving of choice fishing spots against the protection of whole cities from flooding, the cities win.

That's been obvious from the start. And now, at last, the Corps seems to agree. For while the refusal to lower Lake Sakakawea stands, the Corps has promised it'll take early action if 2012 looks like a high-water year.

"The corps said in a release that it will be more flexible when it comes to releasing water from upstream reservoirs early so as to avoid the summer-long flooding that devastated along the river this year," the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

And as a Corps water-management chief put it, "we are going to keep close tabs on the weather and the repairs going on, and if we have opportunities to move additional water out of the system this fall or winter or spring, we're going to use the opportunities."

The change stems directly from the public hearings and other expressions of interest, the Corps said.

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The agency's flexibility is welcome. As North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven put it, "people living in the Missouri River Basin need to know that it's not business as usual, and that the Corps is doing all it can to protect lives and property in these hard-hit communities."

The Corps has many important missions in managing the Missouri River. But as residents and elected officials now agree, flood control should be Job 1.

Opinion by Thomas Dennis
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