Property and Power: The Master Manual and the Missourians


Once again, federal representatives from the state of Missouri are attempting to stymie the Army Corps’ effective management of the Missouri River. The latest controversy involves the Corps’ wish to operate the main-stem dams and reservoirs in a manner that addresses current ecological, hydrological, and climatic realities.

Federal engineers are proposing to raise the lower river in the spring, drop it in the summer, jump it back up in the fall, and then drop it again during the winter. At present, the Corps raises the lower river in March, maintains uniform flow volumes through the navigation channel for about eight months, and then cuts back on reservoir releases before winter. Uniform flows are supposed to provide a reliable depth for the few barges on the lower river each year.

The Army believes a revised reservoir release sequence will aid fish and wildlife by mimicking the Missouri’s pre-dam flow regime. Variability in discharge rates had fostered habitat variability, which in-turn contributed to biological diversity. The old river was chock full of fish because it possessed different water depths, water velocities, as well as gravel bars, sandy shoals, side channels, and oxbow lakes. Gargantuan blue catfish, northern pike, black bass, perch, bluegill, rock bass, shovelnose sturgeon, channel catfish, and sauger found a hospitable home in the wild river. In the adjacent valley bottoms grew impressive stands of cottonwood trees, meadows blanketed in big blue stem, and bogs covered in thick slough grass. Birds, bison, elk, turkey, and a zoo’s worth of other critters inhabited the valley prior to European-American settlement.

Our ancestors deemed biodiversity less valuable than industry and mono crop agriculture. In consequence, the Army remade the lower river into a monotonous ditch, while farmers drained, plowed, and planted almost every acre of the lower valley.

Thanks to modern science, we now know the importance of biological diversity – its crucial not only to human health and well being but to the earth’s long-term livability. We need biological diversity to survive. In rejigging how it operates the Dakota and Montana dams, the Corps will attempt to right some of humanity’s past ecological wrongs. A varied flow regime will give biological diversity along the lower river a boost. Specifically, a Corps’-induced spring rise will serve as a spawning que for fish species such as the endangered pallid sturgeon.  Lower summer flows will preserve the nesting chicks of the least tern and piping plover. But there are more benefits in the Army’s plan than those that accrue to fish and wildlife.

An altered flow regime, in conjunction with the Army’s chute restoration program, will lessen the flood threat south of Sioux City. If timed properly, a spring rise will evacuate water from the upstream reservoirs before the melting of the mountain snowpack. Excessive snowmelt, and the inability of the main-stem reservoirs to absorb it, contributed to the Great Flood of 2011. Freeing up reservoir space in the late summer or early fall will allow the Army to respond to unprecedented fall and winter rain events, like the ones that struck the lower valley late last year. Channel chute restoration widens the river and increases its conveyance capacity, meaning it can safely carry more floodwater.

Since the 1800s, the political and economic order along the Missouri River has been dominated by Missouri’s farmers, business community, and shipping companies. That old order refuses to accept that we live in an era of greater environmental understanding. If the Army goes ahead with changes to its operational plans for the river, it may or may not require the revision of its Master Manual.  The Master Manual is the Corps’ procedural bible, it details the Army’s priorities for the Missouri River hydraulic system and explains how that system will be operated to achieve those priorities.

At this very moment, Missouri’s congressional reps are pressuring the Army to maintain the status quo along the river and not revise the Master Manual.  Officials, led by Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO), are urging the Corps to deemphasize its habitat restoration efforts and instead focus exclusively on the age-old priorities of flood control, hydropower production, and navigation. The obstructionism of the Missourians is understandable.  They’re afraid of losing the wealth they derive from the river’s water and the valley’s rich soils. But their fears are unfounded. No one in the Missouri Basin is interested in deposing them from their exalted positions or impoverishing them, neither the Corps nor the environmentalists.

I don’t know what it will take for Missouri’s leaders to change their minds. My hunch is that they will only agree to a new river management scheme when the social, political, and economic costs of their intransigence becomes prohibitive.  And sadly, I think that is only going to happen when the presently mismanaged Missouri rises up in a series of cataclysmic floods and smashes what they cherish most – their property and power.

The above article was published in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader at:


This entry was posted in Climate Change, Featured, Missouri River, Missouri River Flood 2011, Our Rivers, Politics, The Environment and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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