A New, New Deal for the Missouri

In the 1930s, FDR provided funds to the Missouri River Navigation Project because he believed that a barge navigation channel from the river’s mouth to Sioux City would eventually carry enough commercial traffic to justify the cost of construction.  He also hoped that the establishment of competition between barge companies and railroad corporations would lower transportation costs for Missouri Valley farmers and manufacturers.  Valley residents would then invest the resultant transportation savings back into the Midwestern economy.  Farmers would use their increased disposable income for the improvement of their farmsteads or for the purchase of tractors and trucks.  Factory owners would invest in machines or hire more workers.  The multiplier effect of the navigation channel would help lift the Midwestern economy out of the depths of the Great Depression.

Roosevelt also directed federal dollars toward the navigation project because he wanted to put men to work.  When he took office in March 1933, the United States confronted the worst economic crisis in its history.  FDR feared that the nation’s unemployed and hungry would resort to political extremism to solve their economic problems.  He wanted to halt the spread of left- and right-wing radicalism through large-scale public works projects.  Jobs would keep men from joining the nascent Bolshevik or fascist movements in America.  FDR considered the Missouri River Navigation Project an ideal means of employing significant numbers of men.  By the middle 1930s, thousands of men worked along the Lower Missouri, building pile dikes and placing rock atop revetments.  Under FDR, the Missouri became a work horse of economic and political recovery.  The river helped pull the U.S. out of the Great Depression.

In August 2011, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the U.S. unemployment rate stood at 9.1 percent.  Over 25 million Americans are unemployed, underemployed or what the government refers to as “marginally attached” to the labor market.  The “marginally attached” are demoralized individuals that have temporarily given up the search for a job.

Not surprisingly, extremist political views are again gaining traction in this country.  Hard economic times feed such ideologies.  The Department of Homeland Security has noted a dramatic rise in membership in militant, right-wing extremist groups since the start of the Great Recession in 2008.

Now more than ever, the United States needs a New, New Deal.  In early September, President Obama proposed a jobs bill to jumpstart the depressed economy.  A Missouri River Flood Recovery Project should be part of any grand jobs program.  A large-scale public works project along the Missouri would alleviate unemployment in the Midwest and help stymie the drift toward political radicalism among certain elements in society.

A Missouri River Flood Recovery Project should not rebuild the defunct navigation channel.  The barge channel will never carry enough barges to justify its reconstruction.  The channel also worsened flooding south of Ponca.  On the other hand, the unchannelized river between Yankton and Ponca remained almost entirely within its banks this summer.  That reach did not experience catastrophic flooding because the river was able to spread out across its floodplain.

The federal government should buy-out hard-pressed floodplain farmers who lost cropland to the river.  Then, in order to reduce the flood threat in the lower valley, thousands of workers could be employed taking down the Army’s pile dikes and revetments, which would allow the river to lower future flood crests by entering its floodplain.  Thousands more could be employed cleaning up the debris left behind by the flood.  Because so many trees are slated to die from the high water, workers could plant millions of trees as well as native prairie grasses along the river.  Trees and prairie grasses would preserve the soil from erosion, stabilize the river’s altered bank lines, decrease the amount of runoff entering the stream, enhance the Missouri’s water quality, and aid fish and wildlife.  Workers could erect levees around vital infrastructure, repair washed-out county roads, and rebuild the damaged state parks and recreation areas situated next to the river.  A system of biking and hiking trails could be constructed along the river’s edge.  New parks could be established in the emerging valley greenbelt.

The time to create a more economically-beneficial, less flood-prone, more accessible Missouri River is now!  Doing so will create thousands of jobs.  The long-term benefits of such a program are obvious.  The river would attract more hunters, fishers, boaters, and tourists.  An increase in visitation to the lower river would lead to business investment in communities up and down the valley, which would further spur the recovery of the Midwestern economy.

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