After Devastating Floods, Debate Over Mission of the Missouri Rolls On

New York Times
23 July 2011
By A. G. Sulzberger

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The meandering path of the Missouri River, charted by Lewis and Clark, once served as the main travel artery across the Great Plains, carrying people and goods between the comforts of St. Louis and the wilds of the Montana territory.

But as railroads and highways replaced the river as the preferred shipping routes, barge traffic dried up so much that some ports have gone years without seeing a single one. And now the river is dividing the region that it had stitched together with each of its oxbow bends.

The record flooding this summer along the Missouri River has overwhelmed dams and levees, swamped small communities and forced large cities into emergency measures to hold the water back. And so the pressing matter of how to manage flooding on the Missouri has added a new urgency to the contentious question that has long nagged this region: What precisely is this river for?

In a normal year, the water that is used to keep the river level high enough for barges comes from releases from the dam system built to control river flow. But the states north of the dams, including North and South Dakota, have argued that the river is no longer needed for navigation and that more water should be kept in the reservoirs for recreation, to help the region’s economy.

The summer-long flood brought promises of renewed cooperation after years of legal and legislative battles. Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, said a recent meeting of a group of senators to examine how the waterway was managed represented “a high point, pardon the expression, for cooperation for states along the Missouri River.”

But these leaders have not yet breached the underlying concerns about how the federal government manages the water.

Earlier this year, the Missouri Congressional delegation succeeded in stripping financing, after more than $7 million had been spent, from a study of the priorities for river management that was supported by upriver states, arguing that it was redundant and amounted to an attack on navigation.

Even as Ms. McCaskill praised the collaboration in fighting flooding, she noted that she and other leaders from both parties in Missouri remained committed to supporting shipping interests on the river. “While navigation is much more important than recreation, we should not let the fight between navigation and recreation get in the way of flood control,” Ms. McCaskill said.

Her colleagues north of the dams have a different view.

“Frankly, navigation never developed as anticipated,” said Senator Kent Conrad, Democrat of North Dakota, who called for a revision of how the river was operated. “The basic operational assumptions from the management of the river are really no longer valid.”

Asked about the continued emphasis on navigation despite the sparse traffic, Jody Farhat, the chief of water management for the Missouri River Basin for the Army Corps of Engineers, said: “The primary reason is it’s because it’s the law. The Corps of Engineers does what Congress tells us to do.”

Once wide, shallow and unusually winding, the Missouri River has been drastically reshaped over the last century, at a cost of more than $650 million, to create a channel friendly to modern vessels, according to federal estimates. The result is a narrower, deeper, straighter river, which the government spends about $7 million a year to maintain.

The predictions for boat traffic that were used to justify the spending never materialized. The amount and value of river freight has actually declined sharply since the late 1970s, a few years before the project was finally completed, according to federal data.

Though the river cuts through the heart of farm country, almost no grain is transported on the Missouri — 4.8 million of the 5 million tons of cargo moved by barge last year was sand and gravel, which was usually shipped less than a mile. Traffic upriver from Kansas City all but disappeared.

“They’ve had decades to prove this is worth the expenditure of taxpayer dollars,” said Andrew Fahlund, a vice president for conservation at American Rivers, a conservation organization that has sued over the management of the river.

Even the shipping company of Roger Blaske, whose great-grandfather and every generation since have plied these waters, was one of several on the river to close after years of drought made business even more unpredictable. He was unsure if it would ever again be profitable to work on the waterway.

“I guess it could be,” Mr. Blaske said with a heavy sigh. “It was at one time.”

Some leaders maintain that the industry will revive. In St. Joseph, Mo., where just two barges have visited in the decade since the construction of a $1.3 million port, city leaders insist that the river is still viable as a commerce route.

Just downriver in Kansas City, leaders are looking into reopening a port, with the head of the effort saying he hoped upriver states would not “choke off the opportunity for people below.” And the State of Missouri received $900,000 in federal money to examine how to get more freight on the river.

“The highways are congested, the railways are headed that way, the waterways have capacity,” said Ernest Perry, the freight development administrator for the Missouri transportation department.

Other rivers have shown that shipping can still be viable. Though slower than other forms of transit, river barges are able to carry far larger quantities at a lower cost. Even with aging infrastructure on many major shipping routes — and despite the widespread flooding this year — the business as a whole remains healthy, industry leaders say.

But the Missouri can accommodate fewer barges because of the strong current and sharper bends. And though navigation, along with flood control, gets priority for releases of water from dams, the unpredictable river levels have made shipping contracts riskier.

The most substantial contribution to navigation that the river makes is supplying water to the far busier Mississippi, into which the Missouri empties just north of St. Louis.

Kevin Holcer, a manager for AGRIServices, a Missouri company that sells fertilizer and other agricultural products, said that when the shipping operations they worked with went out of business, the company bought its own tugboat.

“We’re really the only one on the Missouri that’s out here every day for hire,” he said. The current flood shut down river traffic and has caused substantial losses, he added.

Officials with the Army Corps of Engineers have said that the reservoir levels were drawn down to “full flood capacity,” when rain unexpectedly filled the space set aside for snowmelt — forcing the dams to release more water than ever before. Various parties have suggested that more water than necessary was being held back. Corps leaders acknowledge the tension between vacating water for a flood and holding it for other use, but maintain that the guidelines never anticipated a flood of this size.

That defense has not assuaged Gov. Terry E. Branstad of Iowa, a Republican, who has strongly criticized the Corps of Engineers for not releasing more water sooner. He said he believed that the other uses, like navigation and recreation, distracted from the focus on flood control.

“They’ve lost their way,” Mr. Branstad said. “They’re not doing what the dams were designed to do in the first place. As a result, we’ve suffered significant losses.”