Charting a Course for the ‘Big Muddy’

  • A recent National Academy of Sciences report on the Missouri River suggested some of the river's natural meanders and access to the flood plain be restored. It also suggested sections of the river be reviewed to see if barge traffic might be closed for parts of the year or permanently.

The National Academy of Sciences has issued a report that calls for the restoration of the longest river in the United States. That report says the government needs to stop studying problems along the Missouri River and – with the help of residents – do something about them. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham has the story:


The National Academy of Sciences has issued a report that calls for the restoration of the longest river in the United States. That report says the government needs to stop studying problems along the Missouri River and – with the help of residents – do something about them. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:

On the opposite bank from here, you can see the Big Muddy empty into the Mississippi River. I’m standing on the spot where Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery spent the winter before starting their historic expedition up the Missouri, across the Rockies and to the Pacific coast. If Lewis and Clark could see the Missouri today, there’s little that they’d recognize at this end of the river. Over the years it’s been straightened, walled-in by levees and channelized. Its braided river system of meanders, backwaters and eddies, once alive with wildlife are – for the most part – gone.

Seventy years ago as the government began huge civil engineering projects; it expected the Missouri River to be a major transportation means of getting grain from the farm fields of Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and Missouri to the markets. But as it’s turned out, almost all of the grain from those states is moved to market by truck or rail or in Missouri’s case on the Mississippi River. Only a tiny fraction less than one-half of one-percent of all the grain harvested in those states is moved by barge on the Missouri River.

According to the Army Corps of Engineers, barge traffic on the Missouri benefits the economy by saving about seven million dollars in transportation costs. But some years the Army Corps of Engineers spends that much maintaining the lower Missouri as a navigable river, and the taxpayers foot the bill.

The National Academy of Sciences – the NAS – was instructed to study the Missouri River and determine the best uses of the river and its flood plain. Stephen Gloss was the chair of the committee that wrote the final report. He says one thing’s certain; the condition of the Missouri River has been studied to death. Its problems are well documented.

“The people should understand the Missouri River ecosystem is in a significant state of decline. There’s been a lot of degradation of the ecological properties of the system. There’s ample scientific evidence to credibly demonstrate that and there doesn’t need to be any more research done to make that credible. The most important thing is to undertake some immediate action.”

The NAS report suggested that the people of the states along the Missouri River should start figuring out where some of the Missouri’s meanders could be replaced and where it could be allowed back into its old flood plain.

At a town hall meeting in Columbia, Missouri, three of the authors of the study, including Stephen Gloss, met recently with representatives of the barge industry, agriculture and government agencies along the Missouri River and with the public. A farmer from Oregon, Missouri, Lanny Meng, told the NAS committee members he’s heard this kind of talk for several years, and he didn’t much like it.

“When they talk about meanders of the Missouri channel and they talk about connectivity with the flood plain. And that flood plain’s my cornfield.”

“Well, I think that the flow change and the management change of the Missouri River’s gonna have a drastic negative affect on my farming practice, and my neighbor’s farming practice and my county. Things will change badly for our community?”

The farmers are not the only ones concerned about change on the Missouri River. The barge industry, which depends on keeping the water level artificially high and the channel deep doesn’t believe there’s enough water to keep the reservoirs full in the upper Missouri, make new diversions for wildlife backwaters and meanders, and keep the barges floating.

Chris Bescia is with the barge industry group Midwest Area River Coalition 2000, better known as MARC-2000.

“So, when the National Academy of Science report says that we want to have more cuts and alluvial deviations in the river, when they say that we want to re-connect the flood plain, when they say all these things, that’s essentially taking out the channel training structures that are designed to maintain a nine foot channel.”

Which the barges need to push their cargo up and down stream.

The NAS report indicates that the people along the river and the state and federal agencies that have authority can find a balance between the commercial and agricultural interests and that of those who want better hunting, fishing, or simply better habitat for the sake of the wildlife and the natural beauty.

Chad Smith is with the environmental group American Rivers. He says it will take some compromises, but it can be done.

“The Missouri is not even close to living up to its potential. And we’re missing out on a lot of quality of life benefits, but also on a lot of economic benefits by managing this river as a ditch and not as a river.”

Smith stresses that no one is calling for the end of barge traffic on the Missouri, or wants the end of farming in the flood plain. But Smith says there’s been just a little too much development of the river, and we need to restore parts of it here and there.

The chief author of the National Academy of Sciences report, Steven Gloss, says that work needs to begin quickly because it will take a very long time to fix the Missouri River’s problems.

“We’ve been at this for a long time, a hundred years or better and, you know, it’s gonna take several decades to get it back a little bit in the other direction. I think we really need to look at this as a long-term sustained process. It’s not something we can find a solution for in five years and walk away from it. We need to be at this for the rest of our lives and for future generations.”

But Gloss stresses this cannot be a job for the government alone. The NAS report says the Missouri can only find balance between the competing interests if the people along the Missouri River all have a seat at the table and share in the river’s wealth.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

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