Syracuse University Magazine


John R. McMahon '77

Battling the 'Big Muddy'

As a kid, U.S. Army Brigadier General John R. McMahon dreamed of playing professional baseball. Today, as the commander of the Northwestern Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, McMahon is up to bat against one of the most daunting challenges nature has thrown his way: record levels of flooding in the Missouri Valley basin. “This spring, Mother Nature played hardball with us,” says McMahon, who earned a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering from the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science and was a member of the ROTC.

A combination of unanticipated heavy rainfall and unprecedented mountain snowpack melt, which in some cases exceeded predicted amounts by more than 600 percent, swelled the Missouri River far beyond its banks. It is McMahon’s job to inspect the levees along the “Big Muddy” —the nation’s longest river—and apprise senior emergency management officials and community leaders about the critical situation. In conversation, his casual demeanor, professional knowledge, and keen organizational skills are apparent. He easily discusses the ramifications of present dam spillway flow rates, levee “freeboard” levels, and extended weather forecasts.

For McMahon, it’s one of the many arduous assignments he’s faced in his military career, which includes serving as director of engineering for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. He assumed command of the Northwestern Division in 2009, and is responsible for an annual program exceeding $3.7 billion in civil works, environmental restoration, and military construction spread out across more than a dozen states. His multifaceted duties include managing 27 dams, 6,627 miles of shoreline, 247 miles of navigable river, and six hydropower projects that can produce 2.5 million kilowatts per day.

Many people have no idea of the Corps’ past or the diversity of its present responsibilities, he says. “The Corps was integral in building our nation’s original infrastructure.” Today, the Corps serves as the nation’s lead agency for flood-risk reduction and environmental restoration, is a major producer of hydroelectric power, and a key partner in maintaining coastal navigation channels and harbors as well as providing recreational opportunities.

McMahon hopes the Missouri River will return to normal levels by summer’s end, but he also knows it won’t be the last time  the Corps will be called into action. “Mother Nature threw us a curve,” he says. “Looking to the future, I hope the Corps remains a vigilant, active force in the maintenance, rebuilding, and renewing of America’s vast and vital infrastructure, ushering our country into a new period of growth and prosperity.”  —Tommy G. Clarkson

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Photos courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers