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Dale Wetzel, Associated Press, Published May 28 2011

Officials tour Missouri River flooding

BISMARCK – Two top Army Corps of Engineers officials on Friday promised help for Bismarck and Mandan as residents of the two cities girded for a flood no one has seen since the Garrison Dam was finished a half-century ago. Many scrambled to bolster sandbag dikes to protect their homes.

The corps said Friday that scheduled increases in water releases from the Garrison Dam, which feeds the Missouri River about 75 miles northwest of Bismarck, will be quickened in response to recent large inflows of rain and melting snow in Montana, Wyoming and western North Dakota.

Water releases will be increased from the current 80,000 cubic feet per second to 100,000 cubic feet per second by June 7, a week earlier than had been planned, said Todd Lindquist, a corps project manager.

The increased flows take about 30 hours to reach Bismarck and Mandan. The 100,000 cubic feet per second would provide enough water in one minute to supply Fargo for more than two days in the summertime. It would equal the output of 30,000 high-capacity fire hydrants.

A network of recently constructed earthen levees along the edges of western Bismarck and eastern Mandan is being bolstered to 21 feet, officials said. Bismarck Mayor John Warford said the higher levees will be finished in time to protect against the speeded-up schedule of water releases.

On Friday, the river was near its flood stage of 16 feet at Bismarck. As water releases from the dam increase next week and during June, it could reach 20 feet, and corps officials said Friday the flows could intensify beyond that if there are heavy rains or unusually rapid melting of mountain snow packs to the west.

Brig. Gen. John Mc­Mahon, commander of the Army Corps’ northwest division, which includes North Dakota, and Col. Robert Ruch, commander of the agency’s Omaha district, toured areas of Bismarck and Mandan on Friday that are being threatened by flooding.

“There is a small window of opportunity to continue and build on the good work that’s begun here,” Mc­Mahon said. “We’re here to support in terms of bringing resources to bear on the problem, to bringing contracting capabilities onto the ground, to work with the city and county engineers to devise defense lines and plans.”

Alongside during the tour were North Dakota’s U.S. senators, John Hoeven and Kent Conrad; Gov. Jack Dalrymple; the mayors of Bismarck and Mandan, John Warford and Tim Helbling; and other officials.

At one tour stop in a Mandan riverside neighborhood, former Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp was among the residents who greeted the group.

McMahon said the corps, in its flood planning, was assuming water increases from the Garrison Dam could reach 120,000 cubic feet per second.

“It’s subject to change as weather conditions play out, as temperatures play out in the mountains and potentially accelerate the snow melt or delay it further,” McMahon said. “There are many variables at play here. We are conveying to the public what we know, when we know it ... Nothing is being held back in terms of information flow.”

Dalrymple said earth-moving companies had already been awarded a number of contracts for levee construction and that more companies would be welcome to get in on the business. Marcus Hall, Bismarck’s city engineer, said about $2 million worth of contracts were awarded on Friday alone.

Hoeven has a personal interest in the flood fight; he recently bought a home in Southport, a riverside neighborhood in south Bismarck that is directly threatened by the rising water.

“We already have sandbags in my backyard,” Hoeven said. “From that standpoint, it’s helpful for me. I’m seeing very directly what people are going through ... I’m right down there on the river, so I’m seeing it up close.”

Until this month, the Garrison Dam had never released more than 70,000 cubic feet per second of water since it began holding back water in 1953.

“This is by far the largest event we’ve had,” said Maj. Gen. David Sprynczynatyk, commander of the North Dakota National Guard. “It’s been nearly 60 years since we’ve experienced anything of this significance.”