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Managing a river is dam challenging

Omaha District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Published Aug. 27, 2015
The River Basin Balancer Game offers insight into an inland waterway and a system of reservoirs, which are operated with a goal for serving each of the benefits, flood control, navigation, hydropower, irrigation, water supply, recreation, fish and wildlife, and water quality, for which many USACE reservoirs are authorized and constructed. Users can take charge of river operations and experience the unique challenges presented when managing reservoir operations in a variety of weather conditions across a geographically diverse basin.

The River Basin Balancer Game offers insight into an inland waterway and a system of reservoirs, which are operated with a goal for serving each of the benefits, flood control, navigation, hydropower, irrigation, water supply, recreation, fish and wildlife, and water quality, for which many USACE reservoirs are authorized and constructed. Users can take charge of river operations and experience the unique challenges presented when managing reservoir operations in a variety of weather conditions across a geographically diverse basin.

Students who beta tested the River Basin Balancer Game reported that sometimes its not fair because the game doesn't let you control the weather and you can't get water when there isn't any rain.

Students who beta tested the River Basin Balancer Game reported that sometimes its not fair because the game doesn't let you control the weather and you can't get water when there isn't any rain.

Students beta testing the River Basin Balancer Game in February 2015 said the game taught them that without dams there would be no water during a drought and damages from flooding might be worse without the dams.

Students beta testing the River Basin Balancer Game in February 2015 said the game taught them that without dams there would be no water during a drought and damages from flooding might be worse without the dams.

Students helped beta test the river basin balancer game answering questions such as what do you think the river would be like with no dams or without operating the dams for specific purposes.

Students helped beta test the river basin balancer game answering questions such as what do you think the river would be like with no dams or without operating the dams for specific purposes.

It’s fall and you’re in charge of scheduling water releases from two dams along an inland waterway. Along the river and in the reservoirs upstream from the dams, you have communities depending on the water for everyday life. The river and reservoirs are a source for drinking water, irrigation, fishing, boating, camping, and attracting and sustaining wildlife. Communities grew with farmers who found rich fertile soil and access to commerce through the rivers. Dams generate power for the communities along the river and the river supplies water for various industries. Dams help these communities by minimizing the damages caused by frequent flooding during spring thaws.

The job is challenging.

The river begins in the mountains where snowfall and snowmelt can be affected by warm or cool spring temperatures. If temperatures are warm, early spring rainfall can accelerate snowmelt and if temperatures are cool, snowmelt may be delayed or if snow accumulates into early summer, runoff could be delayed and extend later into the summer.

In 2013, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Omaha District Leadership Development Class developed a video game that invites players to plan and make releases from two inland waterway dams.

The Omaha District, with class members as project managers, awarded a contract to the U.S. Army Game Design studio to design the game.

The game was beta tested by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers employees across the country as well as in fourth and fifth grade classrooms in Bellevue and La Vista, Nebraska.

“The hardest ones to keep green are ones where water is needed,” said a student beta tester. “If it’s too high, you can let water out. But you can’t control the weather or make more water.”

Another student said “I just tried to keeps things green and hope they were red from too much water instead of not enough.”

“Watching the students play the game, hearing their frustration when weather doesn’t cooperate with their goals, and seeing them learn the challenge of balancing the authorized purposes was the grand finale for developing the game,” said Michelle Schultz, the game’s project manager.

The game allows players to take charge of river operations and experience the unique challenges presented when managing reservoir operations in a variety of weather conditions across a geographically diverse basin. Like the real world, the weather forecast isn’t always accurate, presenting an additional challenge.

“The game’s features were created just for the game and don’t replicate any places, conditions, or events but hopefully will give the public a glimpse of the challenges water managers face,” said Schultz.

The game is based on the authorized purposes for which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates its many dams. Although navigation is a purpose in the game, these dams do not have locks to support barge traffic along the length of the river. The game features 14 items that are affected by release decisions. The items include: flood control with two towns, one with a levee surrounding it that can be affected by high water levels; navigation with a barge on the lower reach of the river; water quality, supply, and irrigation with two intake structures, a water treatment plant, and a farm; hydropower at each dam; fish and wildlife with a bird nesting location; and recreation including boat ramps, campgrounds, and playgrounds.

Like all USACE water managers, the goal for players is to achieve the maximum multi-purpose benefits for which the reservoirs are operated.

“The game doesn’t just teach about water or the river management,” said one of the teachers who hosted the game’s beta test in her classroom. “It includes history, relationships, cause and effect, and even social studies because of the laws that determine how the dams are operated. We hope to include it in our classroom activities,” she added.