SIOUX CITY -- When residents of Pierre, Dakota Dunes and other communities along the flooding Missouri River scrambled to protect their towns, many had harsh words for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency responsible for managing the river.
"The Corps of Engineers has completely and totally let us down," Gary Grittner, a Fort Pierre resident, said. "We, the people of Fort Pierre and Pierre, are paying the price for incompetence on the part of the Corps of Engineers."
Severe flooding on the upper Missouri may be a rare event, but harsh criticism of the corps isn't. For decades, stakeholders up and down the river have waged a fierce struggle over how the corps has managed water releases from the great Missouri River reservoirs -- struggles triggered equally by periods of low water as this year's high water.
"There's long been tension between upstream and downsteam interests," said David Pope, executive director of the Missouri River Association of States and Tribes.
The root of the problem is that everyone wants enough water for all of their uses -- but not too much. In dry years, upstream states want water held back to keep reservoirs full, while downstream states want water released from dams to keep the lower stretches of the river high.
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In most wet years, this tension is more muted with enough water to go around. But when the river floods, like in 2011, interests along the river want the excess water to go somewhere else.
Caught in the middle is the corps, charged by a 1944 Congressional law to manage the river with eight different purposes in mind: flood control, navigation, hydropower, irrigation, recreation, water supply, water quality and fish and wildlife.
"We operate this system in accordance with a master manual that is designed to provide service to all of those authorized purposes through a very wide range of runoff conditions," said Jody Farhat, chief of the Missouri River basin water management division for the corps.
The problem is many of those purposes conflict with each other. When drought strikes and river levels fall, the corps can find itself having to choose between pleasing one interest or another -- or satisfying no one.
When water in reservoirs, such as South Dakota's Lake Oahe, is discharged downstream, lake levels drop, with significant impacts on boating and fishing.
During the drought from 2000 to 2007, Lake Oahe's level was 48 feet lower than today, which harmed some species of fish and left many of the lake's boat ramps high and dry until the state extended many of them.
"Lake Oahe alone has about a $30 million economic impact just for fishing ... when it's got good accessibility and a balance of good fisheries in it," said John Cooper, who served as Secretary of South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks from 1995 until 2007.
When lake levels dropped, Cooper said, it became more difficult and less rewarding for people to get onto Oahe.
"We started to see our visitation drop off," Cooper said. "A couple of those years, that annual impact dropped to $12 million and $15 million a year."
One reason water levels fall so much in Lake Oahe during droughts is the demand for more water from states farther downstream, including Iowa, Nebraska and Missouri.
The most controversial downstream water use is barge traffic, which runs on the river between Sioux City, Iowa, and St. Louis, where the Missouri flows into the Mississippi.
Supporters of the river navigation industry say theirs is an important use of the Missouri that deserves support from the corps.
Roger Harris, vice president of operations for barge operator Magnolia Marine Transport, praises water transport as a fuel-efficient and safe way to relieve pressure on highways and railways.
Harris, whose company's Missouri River business largely involves shipping petroleum, said recent droughts have forced his company to carry about 12,000 fewer barrels of oil per boat, a 30 percent reduction.
And even that reduction was with the corps sending more than a trillion gallons of water downstream per year during drought conditions to improve navigation.
"We still could function on the river as long as the flows and water level was there," Harris said.
In drought years, Harris said the barge industry would wither away to almost nothing.
"It could definitely have a negative impact on the economy," he said. "As long as the water is there, navigation would continue, and the businesses and the area served by that navigation will prosper because of it."
These claims draw harsh criticism from many South Dakotans interested in river issues.
Former South Dakota Gov. Bill Janklow slammed Missouri River navigation as "the highest-subsidized ... transportation in the world," while Cooper dismissed it as "a non-entity."
The corps is required to serve navigation's needs by the 1944 Flood Control Act, which authorized most of the Missouri River dam system. The act informs the corps' Missouri River Master Manual, a 432-page handbook that prescribes how much water, and when, the corps should release from dams during a variety of different runoff conditions.
For corps critics, the master manual is exhibit A in their indictment of an organization they see as unresponsive or biased in favor of downstream states.
"The corps is entrenched into what works for them," Cooper said. "What works for the corps is the 1944 Flood Control Act as it was written back in 1944. What's happened is that there's all these changes in ... the entire Missouri River basin that should change the way the corps is operating."
There have been some changes in how the corps balances demands for the water over the years. In 2004, the corps revised its master manual to slightly downgrade the importance given to navigation over recreation and other upstream interests.
That change came after a 15-year revision process, started in 1989, after drought in the 1980s inflamed tensions over the river and led to political pressure and several lawsuits.
"We couldn't get anything done politically, so we sued them," said Janklow, who initiated lawsuits while he was governor from 1979 to 1987, and then represented South Dakota and Montana in a lawsuit over the Missouri after leaving office.
Sen. Tim Johnson, who has represented South Dakota in Congress since 1987, said he has never had an easy time persuading corps leaders to change their minds.
"The corps is historically difficult to deal with," Johnson said. "The (congressional) delegation has the opportunity to offer their opinions on management, but the truth is that the corps can do as the corps wants. The upper basin states are dominated by the lower basin states, who have more legislators to go around."
Farhat said the corps relies on the 1944 act, its master manual and court rulings in managing the river but said that it also consults extensively with governments and residents along the river's length.
"We coordinate with our stakeholders extensively," Farhat said.
The corps holds a series of public meetings twice a year, in April and October, to discuss the management plan for the next year.
During the 15-year revision of the master manual, Farhat said, the corps "looked at hundreds and hundreds of different alternatives," had hundreds of public meetings and received "thousands and thousands of comments" from residents and government agencies.
When it comes to the actual day-to-day decisions of managing the river, Farhat said the corps relies on the master manual but has some discretion to react within the manual's guidelines. Among the corps' positions, Farhat said, is to plan based on averages, not extremes.
"We don't operate the reservoir system for a worst-case scenario," she said. "That would not provide the best balance to all those eight authorized purposes."
When worst case scenarios -- this year's record-breaking flooding, or the past decades' record-setting drought -- do occur, that can leave the corps subject to angry citizens demanding changes.
One effort at bringing change is currently stalled, a casualty of federal budget cuts as Congress wrestles with a massive deficit. The Missouri River Authorized Purposes Study was established by Congress in 2009 to review the original 1944 Flood Control Act and "determine if changes to the authorized purposes and infrastructure may be warranted."
Funding for the $25 million study was cut during this current budget year -- after criticism from downstream lawmakers including Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-Missouri, who was quoted in news reports earlier this year as saying, "We like the situation the way that it is."
Budget proposals for next year also lack funding for the partially completed study.
South Dakota lawmakers including U.S. senators Tim Johnson and John Thune support funding the study.
The lack of funding for this federal study has frustrated advocates of changes to the corps' river management.
"We can't keep doing what we're doing," Cooper said. "It hasn't seemed to work when we have drought, and it doesn't seem to work when we've had especially wet periods. Let's get Congress directly involved. This river system is too important not to run it any better than it's been run."