Water Resources: Corps' 1988 Missouri River Water Releases Met Guidelines

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1990-11-07.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                 United   Statw   General   Accounting   Office   .*&‘

GAO              Report to Congressional Requesters                .

~&wtber   1990
                 WATER RESOURCES
                 Corps’ 1988 Missouri
                 River Water Releases
                 Met Guidelines
GAO                General Accounting Office
                   Washington, D.C. 20648

                   Resources, Community, and
                   Economic Development Division


                   November 7,199O

                   The Honorable Max Baucus
                   The Honorable Quentin N. Burdick
                   The Honorable Kent Conrad
                   The Honorable Thomas A. Daschle
                   United States Senate

                   In response to your May 24, 1990, request, this letter provides informa-
                   tion on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ operation of its Missouri
                   River system of dams and reservoirs during 1988. In particular, you
                   asked us to determine (1) whether the Corps released Missouri River
                   water during 1988 specifically to aid navigation on the Mississippi River
                   and (2) the Corps’ legal authority to take such action.

                   The Corps did not increase water releases from the Missouri River
Results in Brief   system of dams and reservoirs it controls specifically to aid navigation
                   on the Mississippi River in 1988. Corps water release and river flow
                   data showed that during the Missouri River navigation season, water
                   released from the system provided river flows that generally met or fell
                   below navigation flow targets. The Corps did not increase target levels
                   because of deteriorating river conditions on the Mississippi. Corps
                   records further showed that water releases made during the remainder
                   of the year (winter seasons) were in accordance with its Master Manual,
                   which provides guidance on appropriate water releases. Thus, the Corps
                   operated the Missouri system to benefit Missouri River interests and
                   water reaching the Mississippi during 1988 was incidental to that
                   The Corps does not have the legal authority to operate the Missouri
                   River system solely to benefit interests on the Mississippi River. Con-
                   gressional authority would be needed for the Corps to operate the
                   system in this manner.

                   Page 1                                    GAO/BCED4J1-9   Mlmouri   River lteleaaesi

             The Mississippi River Basin includes seven subbasins: Upper and Lower
Background   Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Arkansas-White, Red, and Ouachita. Figure
             1 shows the four maor rivers-the Illinois, Missouri, Ohio, and
             Arkansas-that     contribute to flows on the middle and lower Mississippi.
             The Missouri River, which enters the Mississippi near St. Louis, Mis-
             souri, contributes mostly to flows in the middle Mississippi.l

             ‘The upper %fis&adppiextendsfrom the river’s hemMUm to Lock& DamNo. 26 near Alton, Illinois
             (north of the point where the IlUnois River entersthe bfiddppi). The middle Mississippiextendsto
             Cairo,Illinois (noxth of the point where the Ohio River entersthe Iblisidppi). The lower Missiippi

Fipun 1: Miuissippi     River Syrtem

                                         0 Sioux Ci+\r            \                  .

                      Gavins Poini Dam        $
                                          \        A                                         Cincinnati            0
                                                                      -,        A.

                                                                                         4      -              /       Knoxville

                                                       P8ge 3                                                               GAO/EED-91-3   Ibfismd   River Releases

The 1988 drought in the Mississippi River Basin was a landmark event.
Below normal rainfall during the first 6 months of the year caused
record low river depths at many locations. Unlike previous low-water
events, the drought extended for months on the lower Mississippi during
1988 and lasted for more than l-1/2 years on the middle Mississippi.

The prolonged drought and resulting low water levels placed unprece-
dented stress on navigation on the lower Mississippi River in 1988. In
June and July 1988, the Mississippi experienced record low water levels
below Cairo, Illinois. The combination of deteriorating channel condi-
tions and large towboats pushing from 35 to 42 barges each caused
groundings and blockages during these 2 months. At some points along
the river, nearly 2,000 barges remained idle as dredges worked to clear
sandbars forming below the water’s surface.

Normally, flows from the upper Mississippi River and from the Missouri
River contribute about 55 percent and 46 percent, respectively, of the
Mississippi River’s flow at St. Louis. As declining rainfall in the Upper
Mississippi subbasin reduced the volume of water entering the Missis-
sippi, the Missouri River’s flow became even more important in main-
taining streamflow on the Mississippi.

The Corps’ Missouri River Division operates the Reservoir Control
Center in Omaha, Nebraska, to regulate the Missouri River system of six
dams and reservoirs. The Center releases water from the system at
Gavins Point, the system’s southernmost dam, during the navigation
season (usually March 23 through November 22) to support navigation
for the 730 miles between Sioux City, Iowa, and St. Louis, Missouri.

The Reservoir Control Center’s Master Manual provides guidance for the
appropriate service level to support navigation on the Missouri River
during the navigation season. The choice of service level is based on the
total volume of water contained in the system’s reservoirs (storage) on
March 16 and July 1 of each year. Depending on the volume of water
stored, navigation service levels range from “full service,” which gener-
ally provides a g-foot Ghannel, to “minimum service,” when navigation
on the Missouri is severely affected. The service levels are expressed in
streamflow rates of cubic feet per second (cfs) at four monitoring
points-Sioux City, Iowa; Omaha and Nebraska City, Nebraska; and
Kansas City, Missouri. The Center refers to these streamflow rates as
navigation flow targets.

P8ge 4                                    GAO/RCEDM-g   Mhwouri   River Releases
                             The amount of water released from Gavins Point Dam is based on three
                             factors: the navigation flow target, the streamflow at the monitoring
                             point experiencing the lowest streamflow in relation to its target, and
                             inflows into the Missouri River from its tributaries below the reservoir
                             system. Releases from Gavins Point Dam during the 1933 navigation
                             season ranged from 20,000 cfs to 36,700 cfs.

                             The Master Manual also provides criteria for non-navigation (winter)
                             releases from Gavins Point Dam. The winter releases are composed of
                             (1) the releases from Fort Randall Dam, the dam above Gavins Point,
                             which are based on the amount of system storage on September 1, and
                             (2) the incremental flows from tributaries between the Fort Randall and
                             Gavins Point dams. Winter release rates are normally one-third to one-
                             half the navigation season rates.

                             The Corps did not increase water releases from the Missouri River’s
Missouri River 1988          system of dams and reservoirs specifically to aid navigation on the Mis-
ReleasesWere Not             sissippi River in 1988. Corps records showed that for the 7-l/2 month
                             navigation season, water released to support navigation on the Missouri
Increased Specifically       River generally met or fell below navigation flow targets. Corps records
to Aid Mississippi           also showed that during the winter seasons, water was released in
River Navigation             accordance with its Master Manual. In addition, the Corps followed its
                             Master Manual in setting service levels for both the navigation and non-
                             navigation seasons.

Water ReleasesGenerally      Water releases at Gavins Point Dam during the navigation season
                             (March 23 through November 7,1933) provided streamflows that met or
Met or Were Below Flow       were below the Missouri River navigation flow targets for 179 days (79
Targets for the Navigation   percent) of the 230day navigation season.* Flows exceeding the targets
Season                       ocmrred on 61 days. As table 1 shows, 36 of these days occurred before
                             June 1938, when navigation problems on the Mississippi first began. For
                             the remaining 16 days on which excess flows occurred, these flows were
                             small amounts and of short duration.

                             *IbUssod River Divbion policy is not to @just releaseswhen river flows are within 600 cfs of target.

                             P8ge 5                                                   GA0/RcED@1-a      lblbeod   IUver It&mea

       Table 1: Misrouri River Flows Exceeding                                          I
       1986 Navigation Season Targets                                                  Days with excess      Peak day flow over
                                                 Month                Days in season              flOWi             target (cfr)
                                                 March                             9                  8                    3,310
                                                 April                            30                  2                      820
                                                 Mav                              31                 25                    2.460
                                                 June                             30                 10                    1,120
                                                 July                             31                  1                      970
                                                 Auaust                           31                  0                        0
                                                 September                        30                  4                    1.260
                                                 October                          31                  0                        0
                                                 November                          7                  1                      750
                                                 Total                           230                 51

                                                 We asked Center officials why Missouri River flows in March and May
                                                 showed the largest percentage of days in excess of navigation targets.
                                                 They told us that for the l-week period of March 24 through 30, they
                                                 released additional water to aid two tows grounded near St. Joseph and
                                                 Booneville, Missouri, in order to maintain an open channel. They said
                                                 that they increased releases in May to prevent least terns, an endan-
                                                 gered species of bird, from nesting at low levels on the river. If they had
                                                 not done so, the birds’ nests would likely have been destroyed later in
                                                 the summer when release rates are usually increased.

                                                 Excluding the March and May flows, the maximum excess flow of 1,260
                                                 cfs occurred on September 17,1988. This excess flow equates to 1.9 per-
                                                 cent of the Mississippi River’s flow at St. Louis and provided the Missis-
                                                 sippi about 1.6 inches to 2 inches of additional depth. According to the
                                                 Center’s Chief, Reservoir Regulation Section, these excess flows were
                                                 the result of an unanticipated volume of water flowing into the Missouri
                                                 from its tributaries, and not a response to the deteriorating navigation
                                                 conditions on the Mississippi River.

       Corps Followed Its Master                 Corps records showed that the Center set navigation service levels for
                                                 the first half of the 1988 navigation season (March 23 through June 30)
       Manual in Setting                         at the full service level. The Master Manual recommends this level when
       Navigation SeasonService                  the system’s storage can support full service to navigation.
                                                 By July 1, storage in the system had dropped to a level at which the
                                                 Master Manual recommended reducing Missouri River flows to between
                                                 full and minimum service levels-a range of 6,000 cfs-during the
                                                 second half of the navigation season (July 1 through November 22). To

                                                 Page 6                                      GAO/RCED-91-9Itfiaoh   River Releases


                             conserve water during critical periods, the manual also allows for a
                             shorter navigation season at the full service level, on the basis that the
                             higher flows decrease costly dredging and permit heavier barge

                             At the request of Missouri River shippers and navigators, the Center
                             retained the full service level and conserved water by shortening the
                             navigation season by 2-l/2 weeks, ending it on November 7 rather than
                             November 22. This decision increased water flowing into the Mississippi
                             River by about 2,000 to 2,600 cfs per day from July 1 through
                             November 7 over the amount recommended by the Master Manual. Con-
                             versely, during the 2-l/2 weeks when the Center began operating under
                             the winter season guidelines, on November 8 rather than on November
                             22, the Mississippi River received about 22,003 cfs per day lower flow
                             than recommended in the Master Manual.

                             According to Corps officials at the Center and the Lower Mississippi
                             Valley Division, Missouri River shippers preferred that the Corps
                             shorten the navigation season rather than reduce flows. A reduction in
                             Missouri River flows forces shippers to lighten loads on their barges,
                             requiring additional barges to make shipments. Conversely, they said
                             that Mississippi River shippers prefer a full navigation season on the
                             Missouri with lower flows because a reduction in Missouri River flows
                             of the magnitude of 2,000 to 3,000 cfs per day ls too small to have a
                             measurable effect on Mississippi navigation. The officials also men-
                             tioned that the greatest effect on navigation on the Mississippi between
                             St. Louis and Cairo, Illinois, occurs when the Center @ins the much
                             lower winter release rates at the end of the Mlssourl River navigation

Corps Follolwed Its Master   On September 1,1987, the Missouri reservoir system had sufficient
                             storage, according to the Master Manual, to provide the daily winter
Manual for Winter            release rate of 16,000 cfs from Fort Randall Dam plus incremental tribu-
Releases                     tary flows. Corps records showed that from December 1,1987, through
                             March 16,1988, incremental tributary flows averaged about 3,000 cfs
                             dally. Accordingly, the Center made winter releases from Gavins Point
                             Dam from January 1 through March 22,1988, at a rate of about 18,000
                             cfs per day.

                             On September 1,1988, storage in the system was not sufficient to con-
                             tinue the releases at that rate. Therefore, in accordance with the Master

                             P8ge 7                                     GAO/RcED-Bl~Miwoari   River Reti

                             Manual, the Center reduced winter releases to 12,600 cfs in November
                             and December 1988.

                             Corps records also showed that winter releases for the period were
                             below the average winter release rates for the Missouri river during the
                             previous 21 years.

Corps Officials Did Not      According to the Chief of the Water Control Branch, Lower Mississippi
                             Valley Division, and the Chief of the Missouri River Division’s Reservoir
Request Increased Releases   Control Center, no water was released from Missouri River reservoirs
                             specifically to aid navigation on the Mississippi during 1988. The Chief
                             of the Water Control Branch analyzed planned releases and historical
                             data on low flows from the Illinois, Missouri, Ohio, and Arkansas Rivers.
                             He said his analysis showed that even if the systems of federal dams
                             and reservoirs in the Mississippi’s subbasins were operated indepen-
                             dently, according to standard operating procedures, there would have
                             been a relatively dependable minimum streamflow for navigation on the
                             Mississippi no matter how little rain fell in 1988. He said he did not ask
                             the Missouri River Division to increase releases of reservoir water
                             because he was reasonably confident that the navigation channel could
                             be kept open by using towing restrictions and by dredging.

                             Lower Mississippi Valley Division records on Mississippi River depths
                             contained no evidence that the Corps was supplementing Mississippi
                             River flows with additional releases from Gavins Point Dam. Moreover,
                             except for brief periods in September and October, Mississippi River
                             depths at St. Louis were below the historical average low levels between
                             April 26 and November 7. The Division’s monthly bulletins showed that
                             increases in river depths during September and October were due to
                             rainfall within the Mississippi River Basin.

                             The Missouri River system of dams and reservoirs was authorized to
The Corps Does Not           serve the Missouri River Basin with the expectation that its operation
Have Authority to            would also provide important incidental benefits for flood control and
ReleaseMissouri River        navigation on the Mississippi River.
Reservoir Water              The Corps and the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation
Specifically to Aid          had separate plans for development of the Missouri River Basin. Section
                             9 of the Flood Control Act of 1944 approved revised plans by the Corps
Mississippi Navigation       and the Bureau. The Corps’ plan as approved stated that in addition to
                             the benefit to the Missouri River Basin

                             P8ge 8                                    GAO/RCED91-3   lbihod   River Release8

                  . . . the proposed Missouri Basin reservoirs, operated in coordination with the
                  authorized reservoirs in the Ohio, Arkansas, and other basins would become an
                  imnortant and beneficial part of the flood-control system of the lower Mississippi
                  River. Use of the stored water for multiple purposes would also improve low-water
                  flows in
                  g-foot navigation channel. Improvement of the low-water flow would assist in pro-
                  viding a la-foot depth in the Mississippi River. . . [Emphasis added.]

                  As the act indicates, the dams and reservoir operations that benefit
                  interests on the Mississippi are only incidental to the Corps’ authority to
                  operate the dams and reservoirs to benefit interests on the Missouri
                  River. Therefore, according to the Corps’ Chief Counsel, the Corps does
                  not have authority to operate the Missouri system solely to benefit inter-
                  ests on the Mississippi River; to do so would require prior congressional

                  We came to the same conclusion. Our review showed that the Corps was
                  not authorized by section 9 of the Flood Control Act of 1944 to operate
                  reservoirs on the Missouri River for the primary benefit of navigation
                  on the Mississippi River. Rather, section 9 recognized that since the Mis-
                  souri River flows into the Mississippi River, releases made for Missouri
                  River Basin purposes would necessarily affect the Mississippi River.

Views of Agency   this report. However, we discussed the information in this report with
Officials         Corps officials at the Missouri River Division’s Reservoir Control Center
                  and at the Lower Mississippi Valley Division. They agreed that the
                  information was accurate.

                  To determine if the Corps released Missouri River water in 1988 for the
Scopeand          purpose of specifically aiding navigation on the Mississippi River, we
         --       reviewed data maintained by the Corps’ Missouri River Division on res-
                  ervoir releases, reservoir storage, and Missouri River flows at Sioux
                  City, Iowa; Omaha and Nebraska City, Nebraska; and Kansas City, Mis-
                  souri. We also reviewed data maintained by the Lower Mississippi
                  Valley Division on Mississippi River flows and depths at St. Louis, Mis-
                  souri, and Cairo, Illinois, for 1988. We compared (1) the actual naviga-
                  tion flows with the flow targets for the period March 23 through
                  November 7,1988, and (2) the actual service levels with the navigation
                  service levels recommended in the Missouri River Division’s Master
                  Manual based on March 16 and July 1,1988, reservoir storage. We also
                  reviewed winter water release rates from Gavins Point Dam for the

                  P-9                                              GAo/ltcEDa1-8   bfhoari   River Relemea

periods of January 1 through March 22 and November 8 through
December 31,1988. We did not independently verify the accuracy of the
Divisions’ data bases nor did we evaluate the adequacy of the Corps’
guidance and procedures.

We interviewed officials at the Missouri River Division’s Reservoir Con-
trol Center in Omaha, Nebraska, and at the Lower Mississippi Valley
Division’s Water Control Branch in Vicksburg, Mississippi. We inter-
viewed officials at and obtained written opinions concerning the Corps’
authority to operate the Missouri River system from the Corps’ Office of
the Chief Counsel at Corps headquarters and its MissouriRiver Divi-
sion’s Office of Counsel. We also reviewed the opinions and legislative
basis for the Missouri River system.

Our review was conducted in July and August 1990 in accordance with
generally accepted government auditing standards.

We are sending copies of this report to the appropriate Senate and
House Committees; interested Members of Congress; the Secretaries of
Defense and the Army; the Director of the Office of Management and
Budget; and the Chief, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. We will make
copies available to others upon request.

If you would like to discuss any of these matters further, please call me
at (202) 276-7766. Major contributors to this report are listed in
appendix I.

James Duffus III
Director, Natural Resources
  Management Issues

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      Page11   M0/RcEDm4   Mimmui   River lteklamw

Appendix I

Major Contributors to This &port

                        Leo E. Ganster, Assistant Director
Resources,              John P. Murphy, Assignment Manager
Community, and          Phyllis Turner, Writer-Editor
Development Division,
Washington, DC.
                        Patricia M. Crown, Evaluator-in-Charge
Kansas City Regional
Office    - -
                        Stanley G. Feinstein, Senior Attorney
Office of the General

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