Remember the drought? What a difference a year can make. I arrived at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Southwestern Division in Dallas about a year ago, and most of the region was in some stage of drought. News coverage highlighted striking images of thirsty lakes, shorelines receding with lakebeds cracked and dry, and low Corps reservoir levels. Communities chafed under lawn watering restrictions.
The story line has changed in the last two months, as rain—lots of it—drenched us, swelled our rivers and tributaries, and filled many of our reservoirs to overflowing. One after another, all four of our Southwestern Division districts in Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas declared an emergency, the first time in our 78-year history.
The public followed us as we closely monitored our lake levels, and—always in coordination with local authorities and our partners—tweaked the water releases from the area lakes. People gathered to watch water coming over the spillways, and eagerly consumed the daily reports of which lakes were rising and the cubic feet per second releases from our reservoirs.
Our neighbors in the communities across our region witnessed, understood, and appreciated the efforts of the Army Corps of Engineers. They publicly praised and thanked us, in print and in social media, positive feedback that any government agency would greatly appreciate. We are deeply grateful for their understanding and support.
What they saw was not an anomaly. It was a very professional and dedicated cadre of engineers, hydrologists, and operations specialists carrying out their jobs around the clock at solidly built structures that weredoing what they were designed to do: protect people and property during a potential flood event.
Flood risk management is the first and most significant benefit that Army Corps of Engineers lakes provide as a value to the nation, and the reservoirs along these lakes throughout our region were built primarily because of devastating floods in the last century.
Within the Southwestern Division, we have a robust Flood Risk Management program, with 74 flood damage reduction lakes/reservoirs; 33.22 million acre-feet of flood storage (in non-engineer math, that’s about 13,984 Cowboy Stadiums); and $85 billion in cumulative flood damage prevention. These figures do not include our 760 miles of local flood protection projects. Nationally, for every $1 invested (adjusted for inflation), Corps of Engineers flood protection systems prevent about $7.89 in damages.
While we don’t know yet how much damage was prevented this time around by Corps reservoirs, we do know historically what happened before they were built: devastating floods, with countless lives lost, thousands left homeless, and astronomical property damages. With the growth in communities and industry that has occurred in the last 50 years, the loss of life and damage that could have occurred without these reservoirs is simply unthinkable.
Our reservoirs performed as designed—because they always do, whether flood or drought. They operate on a life cycle approach. During a flood event, they allow us to hold and then make controlled releases to prevent flooding downstream. During a drought, they allow us to store rainwater that has fallen earlier and conserve it for other authorized uses, such as water supply or hydropower.
So when these very reservoirs were operating during the drought, they still supplied hydropower to the Southwestern Power Administration in Oklahoma, for example, or water to North Texas Municipal Water District in Texas. And they were operating as designed.
Our infrastructure also sustained some damage, and that damage must be thoroughly assessed and repaired. Think of the scope of the rainfall: 35 trillion gallons of rain in Texas in May alone, enough to cover the entire state of Texas in 8 inches of water.
Some of that damage was to our recreation facilities on the lakes, which provide another authorized purpose of these projects: recreation. Many of our recreational areas were closed for Memorial Day, and might not be open until Labor Day. We know that’s an inconvenience for people. We ask for your continued support. We’ll make every effort to reopen as quickly and as safely as possible.
But our primary goal must continue to be flood risk management, the reason that the reservoirs were built. Our attention will be on getting them back into top shape to protect you and your community—which is, after all, our community too—for the next major weather event that comes our way.
Thank you again, partners, stakeholders, and community members for your great support of the Army Corps of Engineers! As we have seen these past two months, our greatest partnership is when we all work together as and for the American people.