No Longer Worth The Price: The Missouri River Navigation Project

In the 1880s and early 1890s the business elite of Kansas City, St. Joseph, Omaha, and Sioux City successfully lobbied Congress to fund what became known as the Missouri River Navigation Project.  These groups, including the Kansas City Commercial Club, sought a deep navigation channel along the Missouri in order to attract barge operators to the stream.  Barge traffic would supposedly lead to a reduction in the transportation costs of Missouri Valley farmers and businessmen.  Any savings in transportation would then be invested in further development of the Midwestern economy.

In 1891, the Army began construction of a six-foot navigation channel from the Missouri River’s mouth to Kansas City – a distance of 361 river miles.  But after only five years of work, the Army halted construction on the project.  Cost overruns, the Missouri’s destruction of the Army’s pile dikes and revetments, the total absence of any barge traffic on the river, and the unlikelihood of future barge traffic persuaded Congress and the Army to abandon the channelization scheme.

In 1910, the Kansas City Commercial Club lobbied Congress to re-initiate work along the Missouri.  Kansas City’s business and political leaders again argued that a completed navigation channel would attract barge traffic to the river.  The lobbying efforts of the Kansas City men paid off.  Over the next five years Congress allocated $6.25 million to the project.

In 1915, the Army conducted a review of the feasibility of the navigation channel.  The engineer in charge of the study, the head of the Kansas City District, Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Deakyne, concluded that a six-foot channel east of Kansas City would never carry enough barge traffic to justify the exorbitant cost of building it.  Deakyne recommended to his superiors in Washington that work on the navigation channel should come to an end.  Outraged that Deakyne opposed their pet project, the Kansas Citians pressured the Army hierarchy to transfer Deakyne from the district.  The Kansas Citians also petitioned the Army’s top brass to approve the continued funding of the project.  The Army agreed to both demands – Deakyne lost his job and the Army continued to spend money on the navigation project.

Between 1916 and 1922, the Army carried out only minimal maintenance on the navigation channel.  As a result, the Missouri broke out of its engineered channel in numerous locations.  In doing so, the Missouri cut the barge channel into several disconnected sections.  By 1922, only thirty-five percent of the river east of Kansas City remained within the Army’s navigation channel.  Not surprisingly, barge operators stayed away from the Missouri.  The river lacked the consistent depth needed for barge traffic.

In November 1928, the American people elected Herbert Hoover to the presidency. Hoover’s election gave the members of the Kansas City Commercial Club renewed hope that the neglected navigation channel would finally be completed to Kansas City.  Hoover had been trained as an engineer – the public even referred to him as the “Great Engineer.”  Like other engineers at the time, Hoover believed America’s rivers should be altered to serve the industrial purposes of hydropower generation, barge navigation, flood control, and irrigation.  Consistent with these beliefs, Hoover favored the construction of the six-foot channel to Kansas City.

Congress appropriated more money to the navigation channel’s construction during Hoover’s presidency than at any time in the project’s history.  In June 1932, after three years of feverish work, the Army declared the navigation channel open to barge traffic.  Kansas Citians celebrated this milestone with a large public ceremony at the city’s waterfront.

Not long after the Army shackled the river east of Kansas City, Kansas Citians lobbied the federal government for the money to extend the six-foot channel all the way to Sioux City.  Kansas Citians J.C. Nichols and George Miller asserted that a longer navigation channel would attract even more barge traffic.  But Army officials expressed doubt about the cost-effectiveness of extending the navigation channel still further.  Engineer George Spalding, posted to the Army Corps of Engineers office in St. Louis, believed the government should wait to fund any extension northward until the just-finished reach below Kansas City had proven itself economically viable.  Spalding wanted to see whether traffic emerged on the lowest reach of the river before building the channel to Sioux City.  Spalding lost his personal battle, the Army brass in Washington overruled him and endorsed the lengthening of the navigation channel.

By 1940, the Army had the Missouri nearly pegged down all the way to Sioux City.  However, the hoped-for barge traffic still did not emerge on the river.  Barges stayed off the river because there remained too many shoals in mid-channel.  Plus, the channelized river’s excessive current velocity prevented barges from being fully loaded while travelling upstream.

Funding for the navigation channel dried up when the United States entered World War II.  The federal government deemed the channel unnecessary for the war effort.  Even its maintenance was not considered a national priority.  After the Army retreated from the Missouri, the river had its way with the channelization structures.  During the forties and early fifties, the Missouri shattered countless pile dikes and revetments.  By the early 1950s, the river had destroyed approximately $125 million dollars worth of the Army’s training structures.  The entire cost of the project up to that time had been $250 million.  In 1952, an Army official admitted that the river south of Sioux City had reverted to “its original wild state” in a number of locales.  What the Army did not admit was that the navigation channel contributed to flooding in the lower valley.  South of Sioux City, the Missouri flooded every year from 1941 to 1952, primarily because the navigation channel had reduced the Missouri’s conveyance capacity.  The narrowed river did not have the ability to safely carry flood flows, so it jumped up and out of its engineered channel, wreaking havoc on agricultural lands, roads, and buildings.

To prevent the total destruction of the navigation channel, and curtail the high flows moving through the shrunken lower river, the Army built five dams in North and South Dakota between 1946 and 1966.  Once the Army closed Fort Randall and Garrison in 1952 and 1953 respectively, business interests at Sioux City, Omaha, St. Joseph, and Kansas City again lobbied the Army and Congress for the resumption of work on the navigation channel.

In order to justify the huge expenditure of money required to finish the navigation channel, Army officials in the mid-1950s predicted that the Missouri between Sioux City and the mouth would carry five million tons of cargo by 1980. Believing the Army’s optimistic barge tonnage projections, Congress allocated the money to complete the project.

Yet, the navigation channel never lived up to expectations.  In 1960, the river carried 1.4 million tons of cargo.  In 1970, barge operators moved 2.4 million tons.  In 1979, operators hauled a record 3.2 million tons on the river.  But then traffic dropped off.  From 1994 to 2006, the Missouri carried a grand total of only 2.8 million tons of food and farm material (other than sand and gravel) – that equaled only 215,385 tons per year during that thirteen-year period.  Between 2004 and 2006, not a single barge appeared along the reach through western Iowa.  In 2006, only two barges arrived at the port of St. Joseph.

The annual monetary benefit of barge service on the river varies by year and by volume of traffic.  One source estimated that the navigation channel produced an annual benefit of $3 million.   However, the “New York Times” recently estimated that the Army spends $7 million per year to maintain the navigation channel.  These statistics indicate that the navigation channel (when considered solely as a route for barges) produces a net loss for American society each year of at least $4 million.

But the losses to American society from the navigation channel go beyond just the lack of barge traffic on the stream.  The navigation channel contributes to flooding in the lower valley – it has always been too narrow to carry away high flows.  When high flows do enter the Missouri at Ponca, Nebraska, (where the channelized river begins), the river quickly rises and inundates the surrounding valley.

Since the Dakota dams have been unable to keep high flows out of the navigation channel, the Lower Missouri has flooded over and over again.  The lower river flooded in 1960, 1971, 1973, 1984, 1993, 1995, 1997 – and 2011.  The monetary costs of those floods has been staggering.  Estimates for the 1993 flood alone range between $12 and $16 billion.  But the high costs of the navigation channel do not end there.  After each flood, the Army spent millions putting the river back inside its riprapped cage – only to have it break out again.

Within the past few weeks, navigation proponents in the state of Missouri have argued for the continued maintenance of the navigation channel after the end of the Great Flood of 2011.  Missouri representatives are proclaiming the vital economic importance of the navigation channel to their state.  Like their forebears in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, contemporary Missourians contend that the navigation channel, if rebuilt and supplied with adequate flow volumes, will attract a vibrant barge industry.  These arguments are the same time-worn, and blatantly false, arguments first put forward by navigation advocates in the 1880s and 1890s.

The Missouri River Navigation Project has been an abject failure.  No amount of money, or wishful thinking, will alter that historical fact.  The State of Missouri and its government representatives can hold on to their delusions about the navigation channel and its grand future, but the rest of the basin and its residents do not have to fall for Missouri’s ruse.

The Missouri River Navigation Project is no longer worth the price.  The federal government spent over $650 million to build it; another $7 million is annually wasted to maintain it; it worsens flooding south of Ponca, Nebraska; and it has cost American taxpayers billions to repair the damages from all of the floods attributed to its reduced conveyance capacity.  It will cost taxpayers untold billions to repair the damages from the 2011 flood.  And to add insult to injury, it barely carries any barge traffic.

If federal dollars are going to be appropriated for the Missouri River, those funds should be used to dismantle the flood-prone navigation channel between Ponca, Nebraska, and Kansas City, and buy-out riverfront property owners.  It’s time to abandon the navigation channel, pull back from the river’s edge, and let the Missouri into its floodplain.  Taking those actions will lower flood heights, reduce future flood damages, and finally bring an end to the environmentally and economically disastrous Missouri River Navigation Project.

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