Good Question: Why Can’t We Open Dams To Prevent Floods?

By Jason DeRusha, WCCO-TV

— It’s the one weather phenomenon we know about months in advance. The National Weather Service is forecasting near record flood levels throughout Minnesota. So, why doesn’t the Army Corps of Engineers open up the dams and let the flood water flow downstream?

“Actually there’s two good answers to that,” said Scott Bratten, hydrologic technician for the St. Paul District of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Bratten deals with water levels and the locks and dams that the Army Corps controls.

“The first is it’s against the law,” said Bratten.

In 1934, Congress passed the Anti-Drawdown Law. It forces to army corps to maintain the system of locks and dams as if barges were navigating the river year-round.

“This anti-drawdown law was to protect the habitat and the environment,” he said.

However, even if there were no law, opening the dams wouldn’t make a difference with flooding.

“None whatsoever,” said Bratten.

The system of dams essentially creates pools along the river, deep enough for barges to travel along. The dams have gates underwater that can be opened and closed, to help keep the water at the right depth.

“These pools are small. It’s like steps on the river, creating little pools,” said Bratten.

The biggest pool is the one created downstream of lock and dam 4 in Red Wing. It’s just 44 miles long, which isn’t much considering the volume of water that’s expected during a flood.

“They would be filled within hours during peak levels,” said Bratten, “It just wouldn’t work.”

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  • Clarice Erickson

    Oh Pash! For a week or two I would think millions of dollars in property, businesses, and lives would be more valueable than the barges going through. And the law should be changed when needed to accomidate the thousands of people that will loose their homes and jobs. Please – –

    • married to the truth

      Do you understand gravity and the forces of water as well? If you open a dam the water behind it goes away. Where does that water flow? South. Do you want to see iowa flooded and not us? Or do you want to see a good part of our lakes and rivers empty and smelly? Do you want to dead habit like never before? All of these dams are in place for a reason. To sustain life and habit. The locks on the river have really nothing to do with flooding. They are really just side pools that allow ships to travel up and down kind of like an elevator in water. Everything is in a state of checks and balances right now. Everything has a point of being stable or over loaded. Open dams and banks swell, wash out and flood flat lands. Go up to devils lake north dakota and ask them the same question! You start to open dams and there will big problems. Forest lake would be nothing compared to the scope of issues that would come very quick!

    • Robert

      First of all this was a really bad story as far as informing the public about a complex issue, but you could at least read all of it before making uninformed comments. First, barges are not moving on the river during a significant flood so that point is irrelevant. But what you really need to understand is that the Miss River Locks and Dams have nothing to do with “flood control” as that is not their purpose – it is not why they were built. When the river rises, eventually the gates are all out of the water and the river is flowing in a “not controlled” manner – no water is being held back as these are low head dams and can’t have an impact on flood flows. It has NOTHING to do with saving fish. AND thousands of people will not lose their homes or jobs because of this. Try to get educated on this topic if you are really interested and the best way to do that is NOT by reading the news.

  • Mrs. Robinson, Stillwater resident

    In Missouri the Mississippi is the lowest they’ve seen it in years. I find it hard to believe that the Corps wouldn’t have thought it wise to release more water over a few weeks in order to bring the water levels down. If they were all released at the same time, I can’t believe it wouldn’t make a difference. It’s been 76 years since the anti-draw down law was passed. I can’t believe it hasn’t occurred to anyone in that time that maybe that’s a stupid law? Now I’m sure it’s too late and many of us can only watch as our homes and businesses are swept away.

  • tom

    All the Good questions are stupid. Heres a good question: why have wages decreased since 1985 and the cost of everything else gone up???? Heres another good one, Why can’t congress put into law that employers give a mandatory cost of living increase equal to what the goverment gets to the private sector?? or, Why don’t the state laws dictate that employers that employ 15 people or more have health insurance for their employees??? Get real questions rather than these lame ones that really don’t matter. We the people would like real questions asked for real answers.

  • Mike

    Well why open dams BEFORE the flooding ever starts to make some room for incoming flow.

    • Mike

      lower damn levels before the flooding starts. allowing some manipulation of water levels.

      • Robert

        These are NOT flood control dams – they are low head dams that only raise the water slightly to maintain relatively constant water depths to allow navigation. They are not for controling floods and can’t, even if all the gates were open now, the flood would still occur.

  • Jack

    Did you people even read what it send?

    The main point is not that it’s illegal, but that it’s irrelevant. Opening dams, during or before, will not prevent flooding.

  • Grizzlyman

    The actual river channels during a flood are like scratches on the bottom of a bathtub full of water. When there are hundreds of miles of land, with flowing melt water all rushing toward lower areas, the dams are quite irrelevant. If you have ever witnessed the flood waters tearing out trees and houses and then flinging them against bridges, tearing out all land in the way, you quickly realize that opening dams would have virtually no effect whatsoever. The lock and dam systems are designed to control levels in the pools during times when the water is lazily flowing along. Some dams have water rushing over them as if they weren’t even there. It is difficult to harness the power of nature.

  • B

    if you dont like/want your house or businesses flooded than move this is america you have that right!!! so quit complaining

  • laupforod

    i agree w/tom on a good question exept that this isnt the right article……although IF EVERYONE asked his questions maybe we would get the TRUTH… the GOVERNMENT DOES LIE TO US THE PEOPLE

    • Capt. America

      Governement should not control your wages….That really smacks of the USSR. They controlled everything as well and look where that got them….regulated to the dust bin of history….Hey good idea, keep them coming. Poor little libs still can’t except the fact that Americans will not buy what their selling.

      • MacEarl

        Minimum wage should be recognized as a tax that has minimal administration cost. The government requires the employer to pay the worker more than the worker would receive in a free labor market with no government intervention. The difference in the “free” wage and the legal minimum wage is the tax. As the minimum wage distorts the entire wage and price market, it is impossible to determine exactly what the tax amounts to, either collectively or individually. But it is a wealth transfer tax nonetheless.
        It is probably more efficient than for the government to raise taxes and then pay a subsidy to low-wage earners. That would require another enormous government bureaucracy staffed by thousands of people who contribute nothing to the economy to be established.

  • RiverRat

    Having grownup and spending most of my life on the river I can tell you that releasing water will do no good. Flooding is just part of the cycle of life on the river. Flooding is actually actually a good thing for the enviroment because it redistributes nutrient rich soil on low lands surrounding the river system. Just ask any farmer who farms the old school way what is his best land…low land along rivers and streams that flood regularly every spring.

  • captainobvious

    um the mississppi is not the only river with a dam, and common sense tells you if you open the dam a little more less water will build, also my girl works for the usgs they dont do it because its illegal, is the only reason they dont, just another intelligent law.

  • Wayne

    I really do feel bad for folks who have to deal with a flood. However, and this is just my personal opinion….but maybe they should have thought about that before building near a river??? Big daddy government cant possibly be big enough to help everyone…….and it was never intended to be that way. Adults need to think and act like adults. If you want to build in a flood plane, great, have at it. But you alone should bear the consequences. If you want to build in the forest……you alone should bear the burden if it burns down. Hurricanes, earthquakes, etc, etc all have their consequences. Life is tough. The Corps operation of the dams apparently doesn’t make a lot of impact on flooding. However, I also suspect there is a lot the Corps does to help out which wasn’t mentioned.

  • Yvonne

    During the floods in the mid-90’s my parents lived along the Mississippi river in Iowa and said they were saveed because of dykes upstream. There is a difference between dams and dykes and maybe there lies the confusion? Although on the local news they mentioned both dams and dykes saving Keokuck, IA. from the worst of the flooding.

  • MinnesotaTom

    Building homes in areas that get flooded every year is about as foolish as Californians building homes on mountainsides. The only reason people still live in flooded areas is because the homes are dirt cheap, they don’t mind wasting hundreds of volunteer hours preventing the flood if people keep coming out to help. Also, dams kill natural habitats because the water is stagnant which causes fungal overgrowth. Imagine, and some of you do this, not brushing your teeth for a month. Yeah, have fun with that.

  • Joe

    I think that a good idea would be for Congress to study the issue and either repeal the law making it illegal or let it stand. With 3 months notice on the possibility of flooding and the number of dams between Minneapolis and New Orleans I find it hard to believe that the sequential opening and closing of dams from Louisiana to Minnesota starting in January could not only maintain river traffic but also alleviate the severe flooding in the upper midwest

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