U.S. Water News Online
LINCOLN, Neb. -- It's common for government agencies to have emergency action plans to deal with flooding, but almost unheard of to have similar plans to deal with drought.
"Planning to mitigate the effects of the inevitable cycle of drought is something we as a nation just haven't done very well," said John Ferrell, author of three books on the Missouri River Basin.
The former U.S. Army Corps of Engineers public affairs specialist and historian discussed drought management in the Missouri River Basin and ways to resolve conflicts between upstream and downstream users of the basin's water resources at the University of Nebraska's Water Resources Seminar Series held here recently.
Ferrell's presentation was the series' annual Kremer Lecture, given in memory of the late state Sen. Maurice Kremer of Aurora. Kremer was a leader in water planning, groundwater management, and other water policy and conservation issues. Ferrell's presentation focused on efforts of the corps and the Missouri River Basin Association to satisfy often conflicting needs for the basin's water during the 1987 to 1993 drought.
"Drought is the most devastating part of water resources management and we are typically unprepared for it. By the time management responds, the cycle is over and planning efforts once again ebb," Ferrell said.
The six-year Missouri River basin drought that began in 1987 showed that users of the river and its series of six "main stem" reservoirs stretching from Montana to Nebraska's Gavins Point, were unable to negotiate reallocations of water.
The corps-managed reservoirs can store about 74 million acre feet of water. During the depths of the drought, that dropped to about 42 million acre feet.
"Still, the reservoir system is unique in the world in its ability to continue to meet needs during an extended drought. This is possible because the system can store about three times the annual average runoff above Sioux City," Ferrell said.
But even with this storage capacity, government agencies and competing users struggled over decisions to use reservoir water for recreation, fish and wildlife, or to release it for generation of hydro-electric power, irrigation, use by cities, and for navigation.
Managing these conflicting needs falls largely on the corps and its Missouri River Main Stem Master Water Control Manual. The manual was drafted in the 1960s and its drought criteria were first put to the test from 1987 to 1993.
"According to the manual, the more a drought a persists, the more stringent conservation measures become," Ferrell said.
Though the manual allows for reduced service to all authorized purposes for the basin during severe drought, it can't be counted upon to totally resolve conflicts among users and special interest groups, Ferrell explained.
"There must be state and federal cooperation on priorities. These priorities should focus on maintaining water reserves, domestic and agricultural use, generation of hydro-electric power, needs of fish and wildlife, overall water quality, protection of endangered species, and navigability," Ferrell suggested.
Competing users must learn to cooperate and negotiate. "Collaboration and negotiation will reward all parties in the end," he said.
The Missouri River Basin Association should take the lead in helping to plan future drought contingencies in the basin, Ferrell added. "States need to work together in a regional view of the basin and allocation of its resources in much the way that legislation creating the basin and its system of reservoirs in the 1940s intended," he said.
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