Court battles over the Missouri River have subsided… for now. The debate has focused on whether the Corps of Engineers should drop water levels to protect endangered species… or keep a normal flow to ensure barges would be able to ship cargo. In the end… levels went down… but not for nearly as long as courts had ordered. And as the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tom Weber reports… this summer’s fight might just be the first battle in a war over the river’s management:
Court battles over the Missouri River have subsided… for now. The debate has focused on
whether the Corps of Engineers should drop water levels to protect endangered species… or keep
a normal flow to ensure barges would be able to ship cargo. In the end, levels went down, but not
for nearly as long as courts had ordered. And as the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tom Weber
reports, this summer’s fight might just be the first battle in a war over the river’s management:
On paper, the Corps of Engineers lowered the Missouri River this summer because of three
things: The piping plover and the least turn, two birds hat nest on sandbars, and the pallid
sturgeon, a fish that lays eggs in the shallow water.
Lawsuits by environmental groups like Chad Smith’s argued having too much water flowing in
the summertime disrupts and essentially washes away those nesting areas.
But Smith, who’s with the group, American Rivers, says the issue is much larger than two birds
and a fish…
“What we’re trying to do is to restore some semblance of the river’s natural flow, along with a lot
of habitat and try to make the Missouri River look and act more like a river. Right now it’s
managed like a ditch and it looks like a ditch.”
Smith says years of management by the Corps of Engineers – building dams and levees and
controlling river flows – have made river depths fairly consistent. But he says, really, that’s just
not how rivers work.
“You would have snow melt and rain coming into the river in the springtime, increasing the
flows, and then throughout the rest of the year, particularly during the hot summer months, the
levels would be very much lower, and that’s the kind of natural dynamic that fish and wildlife
And so when a federal judge in Minnesota told the Corps of Engineers to lower water levels on
the Missouri, it was an attempt to get the river back to its natural ebb and flow. The court order
was for a four-week drop in levels, but the Corps only lowered the water for three days towards
the end of the endangered species’ nesting periods.
But even those three days upset business interests along the river, particularly the barge industry.
Towboats can be seen pushing barges up and down the Missouri River between Sioux City Iowa
and St. Louis. A group of politicians and business leaders, in fact, recently met at the Gateway
Arch in St. Louis to criticize the judge’s order. It’s actually the Mississippi River that passes in
front of the Arch, but because the Missouri spills into the Mississippi just north of St. Louis, the
group noted that lowering one would lower the other. And Missouri Senator Jim
Talent says that has a negative effect on jobs and the local economy.
“When that river goes down the barges can’t move. We’re inhibiting barge traffic already and if
this continues it’s going to stop. And we really need to step back from the brink of an action that’s
really just unreasonable and being forced on us by an extreme interpretation of the law by the
Congresswoman JoAnn Emerson, whose district borders the Mississippi, wonders why the
Endangered Species Act that essentially won the lawsuit to lower levels is of higher importance
than people’s livelihoods.
“My mandate in Congress is from the people up and down the Mississippi River, people from my
Congressional district. My mandate isn’t from the piping plover or the least tern or the pallid
The debate over the Missouri River might have been moot if not for one other factor: A drought
has plagued parts of the Midwest for more than a year and made the rivers even lower.
A few days after the group met at the Arch, the Mississippi River got too shallow for any barge
traffic and closed for a weekend. Having cargo just sitting there, not getting to market, cost the
economy a million dollars a day by some estimates.
Barge groups blamed the lowering of the Missouri; environmental groups blamed the drought.
Barge traffic is moving again and the nesting season is over for the endangered species named in
the lawsuit. But the fight is far from over as both sides appear ready for another round. Once
again, Chad Smith with American Rivers.
“We’re prepared to stay in court for as long as it takes if the Corps is going to continue to be
obstinate about this. The Corps is now on notice through the court actions this summer that these
things are serious and they can’t hide from them.”
For its part, the Corps has said it will work with other government agencies, namely the U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service, to come up with a plan for managing the river for both wildlife and the
barges in time for next year. But it has said that before, and the two sides seem just as
far apart as they’ve ever been.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Tom Weber.