The Corps of Engineers will soon lower water on the Missouri River… a month after it was first ordered by a judge to do so. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tom Weber reports:
The Corps of Engineers will soon lower water on the Missouri River… a
month after it was first ordered by a judge to do so. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Tom Weber reports:
The Corps is only going to keep the river levels down for three days. A
federal judge in Washington had ordered the reduction to protect nesting
endangered species… but the Corps said that would conflict with another
ruling from Nebraska that said water must be high enough for barges.
Those lawsuits were all combined and sent to a court in Minnesota… where
judge Paul Magnuson ruled the two orders were not in conflict. He says that
means the order to lower levels still applies.
Barge companies were told to secure vessels because the river will likely be
too shallow for navigation during the three days. The corps had risked
being fined a half-million dollars a day for being in contempt of the
ruling… but Judge Magnuson says he won’t enforce those fines at this time.
Environmental groups say it might be too late for the species… but it’s
better than nothing.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Tom Weber.
The fight between environmental and business interests on the Missouri River has created legal wrangling in two federal courts. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tom Weber reports:
The fight between environmental and business interests on the Missouri
has created legal wrangling in two federal courts. The Great Lakes
Tom Weber reports:
The controversy started when a federal judge in Washington recently
the U.S. Corps of Engineers to lower water levels on the Missouri
That move would protect endangered birds and fish that risked losing
nests with the higher water levels.
The Corps told the judge, though, it intended to ignore that ruling
because of a
previous ruling in a Nebraska court. That ruling said water levels
be high enough to keep barge traffic moving on the lower Missouri.
The Washington judge scolded the Corps for refusing her order and ruled
agency in contempt. The Corps in turn asked the Nebraska judge to
her ruling to allow it to avoid heavy fines for being in contempt.
But Wednesday… the Nebraska judge refused. The Corps is appealing
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Tom Weber.
The Army Corps of Engineers installed these wing dams to force the current to the middle. The rushing water scours the bottom of the channel to keep navigation open. A new study alleges the wing dams slow the current during major floods and cause flood waters to be higher. Photo by Lester Graham.
A recent study concludes that some actions of the Army Corps of Engineers might be causing more, rather than less damage during major floods on rivers in the Midwest. The study by two Washington University professors found that wing dams, which jut out into the river, could cause big floods to rise even higher. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham takes a closer look at this study:
A recent study concludes that some actions of the Army Corps of Engineers might be causing more, rather than less damage during major floods on rivers in the Midwest. The study by two Washington University professors found that wing dams which jut out into the river could cause big floods to rise even higher. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham takes a closer look at this study:
The Mississippi and the Missouri rivers are two of the major arteries for barge transportation in America. Millions of tons of grain, and raw materials are floated up and down the rivers each year. It’s the Army Corps of Engineers’ job to keep the rivers open to barge traffic. The Corps has been doing that job for the past 150 years. But since the 1930’s that effort has taken on immense proportions. Huge dams hold back the river, keeping the water high enough for the barges to travel up and down-stream. Big earthen dikes, called levees, wall in the rivers, keeping them from flooding farms and towns, but also keeping the water from reaching the natural flood plain. Robert Criss and Everett Shock studied flood levels and the effects of the Corps of Engineers projects. Criss says those dams and levees alone might be enough to disrupt the flow of the river and cause flood stages to be higher.
“But the other component is these structures called wing-dams which are jetties of rocks that project out perpendicularly into the channel. For high-flow conditions, these act something like scale in a pipe. They impede the flow, restricting the channel. That slows the velocity of the water down and that also makes the flood stages higher.”
The purpose of wing dams is to force the current to the middle of the river to scour out the navigation channel to keep it open for the barges. Researcher Everett Shock.
“So, they do the job they’re intended to do. It seems that there’s an unintended–perhaps unintended consequence of all these constructions along the river that shows up when we have a big flood and makes it to –on the basis of our study– makes these big floods worse.”
Criss and Shock say their study finds that since these flood control projects have been erected, there have been more big floods, such as the one in 1993 that flooded the Mississippi and some of its tributaries for most of the summer. Robert Criss.
“The fact is, before World War II, a flood stage of 38-feet is very rare and now it happens every five years.”
But not everyone agrees with the methodology used by the researchers. The
Corps of Engineers dismisses the researchers’ study, saying they used flawed data. Corps officials point to a study at the University of Missouri – Rolla. That study compared the 19th century method of measuring a river’s flow by timing how fast floats moved in the current to the methods used today. Dave Busse is a scientist with the Army Corps of Engineers. He says the original stream flow measurements –the ones Criss and Shock used— were inaccurate.
“The flows were over-estimated by 30-percent using this float measurements rather than the measurements than we use today.”
Criss and Shock are skeptical of new numbers that the Corps prefers. Saying it seems awfully convenient for the Corps because changing the numbers makes the historic floods look smaller and therefore makes the 1993 flood look unprecedented. Criss and Shock say based on the original records, there was as much water in past floods as in the 1993 flood but lower water levels. Criss and Shock say the difference between then and now is that the Corps’ big dams, levees, and wing dams constrict the river’s flow and make floods higher.
The Corps, however, has other criticisms of the Criss and Shock study. Dave Busse says the researchers ignored the role of the Corps’ reservoirs in the rivers’ watersheds. Busse says the reservoirs hold back water that would otherwise be part of a flood. And Busse says, another flaw is the researchers conclusions about wing dams. The Corps says the wing dams force water to deepen the channel and increases the flow of the river.
“So, what we have is the same –it’s a re-shaped river, but its carrying capacity is actually higher now. We can actually carry more water at the same stage. The river got deeper, therefore this conclusion that they’ve made is wrong.”
The Corps says there’s more to managing the river than the researchers have considered. Criss and Schock, meanwhile, say their study is not the first to be dismissed by the Corps of Engineers. They say other studies have found similar results, but the Corps dismissed them as well.
Environmentalists have been arguing for decades that levees and dams keep floodwaters from spreading out on their natural flood plains and cause higher flood levels. The Criss and Shock study adds to their arsenal of arguments to change the way the rivers are managed. But most environmentalists concede that we’ve become somewhat dependent on the Corps flood control projects. Chad Smith is with the environmental group,
“In most ways both of these camps are right. The Corps is right that putting some of the structure in has helped to reduce the kind of annual flood events that always happen on a big river like this, but what they unfortunately have done is to exacerbate what happens when you have bigger floods and the wing dams and the levees and the dams themselves all are part of that.”
The Army Corps of Engineers says it’s reviewing its way of managing rivers in light of the 1993 flood. But they also note that while flood stages might be higher more often than they were in the 19th century, most of the time those floodwaters remain behind the floodwalls and levees, protecting the communities from high water, and the Corps says in the end, that’s the only fact that really matters.
The Upper Mississippi River is a key navigation route for
commercial vessels traveling to and from the Great Lakes. The U-S
Army Corps of Engineers is studying ways to enhance the river’s traffic
capacity. One option is to expand some of the locks. That would reduce
the time it takes for barges to travel between ports. But one Corps
economist says the benefits of lock expansion don’t outweigh the costs.
Now, he’s blowing the whistle on those whom he says have fixed the
numbers to justify a one billion-dollar construction project. The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Kevin Lavery reports:
The Upper Mississippi River is a key navigation route for commercial
vessels traveling to and from the Great Lakes. The U-S Army Corps of
Engineers is studying ways to enhance the river’s traffic capacity. One
option is to expand some of the locks. That would reduce the time it takes
for barges to travel between ports. But one Corps economist says the
benefits of lock expansion don’t outweigh the costs. Now, he’s blowing the
whistle on those whom he says have fixed the numbers to justify a one
billion-dollar construction project. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Kevin Lavery reports:
Lock and Dam number 25 near Winfield, Missouri straddles the upper
Mississippi 40 miles north of St. Louis. Last year, 39 million tons of
grain, soybeans and other cargo passed through here. Though it’s winter,
water continues to rush through the dam. However, ice on the river farther
north has slowed barged traffic here to near non-existence.
A lock is essentially a watery elevator that raises and lowers boats to
different depths. Each lock is 600 feet long, but a typical 15-barge tow is
12-hundred feet long. Walter Feld is with the Corps of Engineers’ St.
Louis District. He says a tow has to break apart to negotiate the lock’s
“One lockage would take about 30 minutes. When you break that tow
apart and put two pieces together, it takes probably closer to 90 minutes.
So all that delay adds up to triple the length of time to get through
In 1993, the Corps began a 58-million dollar study of the upper
Mississippi in an attempt to plan for the needs of the navigation industry
over the next 50 years. Dr. Donald Sweeney was named the lead economist
for the study:
“The feasibility study is a planning and implementation
You’re required to investigate the economic effects and environmental
consequences of whatever actions you might propose.”
At the start of the study, Sweeney says his team was told to give its best
unbiased estimate of the situation:
“And I believe that was truly the spirit of the study up
late 1997, at which it turned 180 degrees.”
Among other alternatives, the Corps looked at doubling the size of seven
locks to reduce congestion on the river. But the economics team concluded
the benefits gained would not be worth the cost of construction. Sweeney
says the analysis showed such a project would result in a loss of up to
20-million dollars a year.
In a written affidavit, Sweeney testified that top Corps officials
the economists to alter their analysis to justify spending a billion
dollars to expand the locks. The report points to a number of internal
memos indicating the Corps’ desire to appease the barge industry. In 1998,
Sweeney was relieved as head of the economics team, five years after the
Corps spokesman Ron Fournier says the media has underplayed the full scope
of the navigation study, and that lock expansions are not the only option at
the agency’s disposal.
“The study is actually navigation improvements, which is
variety of alternatives for the river. We have alternatives such as
extending the guide walls, adding mooring cells or buoys for barges to
tie up to, and then again also the expansion of the lock chambers
Fournier says Sweeney failed to take into account some of those
alternatives, many of which he says were added since the economist left the
“The navigation study has been evolving for the past seven
years; and as new data is received from the shipping industry, from the
farm growers and from a variety of other economists throughout the
country, new calculations are being used and different results are
Aside from the financial issues associated with large-scale construction,
environmentalists say lock expansion would jeopardize wildlife on the river.
Washington D.C. based Environmental Defense has taken a leading stance in
the issue by releasing many of the internal Corps documents to government
officials. Senior attorney Tim Searchinger says the papers clearly show
most of the people in the study had a great deal of professional integrity,
and that some may have been pushed into doing the wrong thing.
“There is a top ranking leadership that’s willing to cause
environmental harm, even when the analysis clearly shows that from a
purely economic standpoint, the project isn’t justified either.”
Another reason why economist Donald Sweeney says the Corps is pushing
expansion is because such projects would bolster the agency’s stagnant budget.
“They’re trying to become a bigger, more vital agency.
sometimes that conflicts with a purely unbiased scientific analysis of
potentially a billion dollars worth of expenditures.”
Late last month, the Office of Special Counsel declared the Corps likely had violated the law in
catering to the interests of commercial navigation. The OSC is the independent federal agency with
whom Sweeney filed his affidavit. The office has ordered Defense Secretary William Cohen to
conduct an investigation and report back by the end of April. Spokesman Ron Fournier says from the
start, the Corps has been forthright about the
study both with Congress and the public.
“We feel that when this investigation is complete,
find there’s no wrongdoing, and of course the
study has been done in an above
Corps will prove that the
board, upright manner.”
The investigation has also reached the congressional level. The Senate
committee on Environment and Public Works is conducting a number of public
hearings on the study this month.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium,
I’m Kevin Lavery in St. Louis.