A Look Back at the Great Flood of 1993

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Published on: Aug. 2, 1995

Last revision: Oct. 20, 2010

In a presentation about the natural resources of the Missouri River a decade ago, I compared the awakening of Gulliver to the rapacity of the mighty river. I suggested then that the river would not be as kind to us as Gulliver was to the Lilliputians, never dreaming how true my prediction would turn out to be.

I'm not clairvoyant, but I have spent the past 25 years as a biologist working on the Missouri River. For some time, I sensed that with all the dams, dikes and levees, the river had been pushed too much. It had become a prisoner bound in rock.

I was struck by the similarities between the legendary travels of Gulliver and what the river had experienced. Like the Lilliputians, river engineers, spending vast sums of tax-dollars, have worked furiously the p ast 70 years to bind this giant of a river.

Perhaps some were arrogant enough to believe they had succeeded.

The great flood of '93 should have finally driven home the point that this great river can't be tamed. This was, after all, the fourth major flood event on the river since 1973. Sad to say, now two years later, it appears we still haven't learned this lesson. "Conquer," not "share" is the prevailing mind set as efforts continue to bind the Missouri again.

That the river needs just a bit more breathing room seems abundantly clear by examining flood height and discharge or flow data from the United States Geological Survey gauging station at Hermann, river mile 98:

Date Discharge Gauge
June 6, 1903 676,000 cfs 29.5 ft.
July 19, 1951 618,000 cfs 33.3 ft.
October 5, 1986 547,000 cfs 35.8 ft.

(Discharge of water is expressed as cubic feet per second, cfs.)

This information reveals that the flood-carrying capacity of the Missouri River has been significantly reduced. In fact, it indicates that 20 percent less volume today results in a flood height which is 6 feet higher than at the turn of the century. This explains why the old-timers who settled on the higher ground in the Missouri River valley could go through flood after flood in the first half of this century without getting wet. Today, however, every major flood seems to inflict damage on homes and property which have never previously flooded.

What is the explanation for this loss of flood carrying capacity? While there are a number of factors, one line in the folk song, O Shenandoah provides an important insight - "cross the wide Missouri."

There are probably

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