In 1943, the Missouri River flooded three times. In March, the river jumped its banks along its upper reach (the Army considers the river above the Missouri River-Big Sioux River confluence the upper river) after the melting of the plains snowpack. In May, the river inundated portions of its valley from Sioux City southward after the commencement of heavy spring rains. The third flood arrived in June when the melt water from the Rocky Mountains arrived in the already engorged lower valley; it struck the river south of Nebraska City, Nebraska.
The Army’s navigation channel from the mouth to Sioux City (built from 1929 to 1940) played a significant role in the two floods that hit the lower valley in 1943. The navigation channel’s pile dikes and revetments kept the river from its floodplain and consequently raised water levels in western Iowa, eastern Nebraska, eastern Kansas and through Missouri. The 1943 floods also pounded the Army’s training structures. Floating trees crashed into pile dikes, splintering the cypress poles and carting the added debris downstream. Freshly dug channels darted through the valley’s soft alluvium, leaving the navigation channel without a river. Occasionally, the Missouri cut chutes on the landward sides of pile dikes or revetments in a move the Army referred to as “outflanking,” as if the river represented a German military unit bent on maneuvering around the Army’s bulwarks. Outflanked pile dikes became useless in directing the river’s flow into a deeper barge channel.
The flood of 1943 outraged Colonel Lewis A. Pick, head of the Missouri River Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Pick oversaw the Army’s work along the Mighty Mo from his office in Omaha. Pick believed the meandering and flood-prone Missouri had no place in a modern, industrial America. In his mind, a wild Missouri held the same perceptual place as the former nomadic Native American tribes. The river, in a manner similar to the Indians of the 19th century, needed to be locked down and integrated into the American economic system. The flooding Missouri disrupted the productive efficiency and war-fighting capabilities of the greatest machine ever constructed by humanity – the United States of America. Pick wanted the Missouri made efficient to serve the machine.
Pick understood that the navigation channel’s reduced carrying capacity exacerbated flooding in the lower valley; although he never publicly admitted that fact. To have done so would have discredited the Army and threatened its institutional dominance of the Missouri. He was also deeply concerned that if the river was left to its own devices it would eventually wash away the navigation channel. In order to prevent the total loss of the navigation channel, and to curtail future floods in the Army’s engineered lower river, Pick submitted his Pick Plan to Congress in August 1943. Pick’s plan recommended the construction of Garrison, Oak Creek, Oahe, Fort Randall, and Gavin’s Point dams across the main-stem of the Missouri in North and South Dakota. Those five dams would have a total reservoir storage capacity of 35.2 MAF. With the addition of Fort Peck Dam’s reservoir, the Army would have 54.7 MAF of storage, more than enough to hold the Missouri’s average annual discharge of roughly 25 MAF. Those six structures would protect the population of the lower valley from floods, secure the navigation channel from utter destruction, and guarantee water for a nine-foot depth in the barge channel south of Sioux City. Pick and the Army considered navigation the highest use of the Missouri’s waters.
At the same time that Pick formulated his plan for the river, the Bureau of Reclamation worked on its own development scheme. In the 1940s, the Bureau wanted to take authority from the Army for the upper river. Glenn Sloan served as the Bureau’s Missouri River expert at its Billings office. Sloan believed irrigation and hydropower production to be the highest use of the Missouri River. Sloan concluded that flood control could be provided to the lower valley by holding back the Missouri’s two annual rises for irrigation. Irrigation did not conflict with flood control. However, irrigation did conflict with the use of the river’s stored waters for the navigation channel. Sloan saw the navigation channel as a waste of both water and federal expenditures. Sloan took five years to write-up his development plan for the Missouri. Pick put his plan together in a mere three months. Sloan’s Plan came out in early 1944. It proposed three main-stem dams at Oahe, Big Bend, and Fort Randall with a combined reservoir storage capacity of 24.95 MAF. With the addition of Fort Peck Dam, the Bureau’s plan would store approximately 44.45 MAF. Like Pick’s Plan, Sloan’s development scheme had ample reservoir storage to contain any future Missouri River flood as long as the reservoirs were operated properly.
In December 1944, Congress passed the Pick-Sloan Plan for Missouri River Development. Historians have long thought of it as a compromise. In fact, it was not much of a compromise at all. In the final legislation, the Army agreed to jettison the Oak Creek Dam in favor of a higher Oahe Dam with almost four times the original reservoir storage space. The Army also agreed to the construction of Big Bend Dam, by the Army rather than the Bureau. The Army gained operational authority over all five main-stem dams. The water in the upstream reservoirs was slated to support the navigation channel below Sioux City. If enough water remained in the Dakotas after the lower river met its water requirements, it could be used for irrigation.
Since 1944, the Missouri hydraulic system has been operated primarily to support the navigation channel below Sioux City. But the navigation channel has been a bust. The Army predicted in the 1950s that the navigation channel would carry five million tons of cargo per year by 1980. It has never met that projection. In the drought year of 2008, the navigation channel carried 175 tons. Yes, 175 tons! Additionally, the navigation channel played a large role in the flood of 2011. Its reduced carrying capacity worsened flooding south of Sioux City. Its water requirements kept the upstream reservoirs high when they should have been low. Pick’s vision for the Missouri has been an abject failure. But the Bureau’s vision for the Missouri would have failed too. Sloan wanted to use Missouri River water to irrigate the James Valley of South Dakota and North Dakota’s Souris basin. Both of those areas are now awash in water.
The 1943 flood served as the impetus for the development plan that has determined the American relationship with the Missouri for the past 67 years. The flood of 2011 has shown that plan to be inadequate for our time. A new plan for the Missouri River is sorely needed. It should be a plan without support for downstream navigation or large-scale upstream irrigation. Flood control needs to be a priority of any future plan. To achieve effective flood control, the navigation channel south of Sioux City needs to be de-authorized. The river there must be allowed to enter its former floodplain. A wider river south of Ponca, Nebraska, will substantially lower the flood risk to the lower valley. Additionally, the reservoirs need to be operated differently. The Army’s base reservoir level each year is 56.8 MAF. The Army reached that level on January 28, 2011, and then began refilling the reservoirs. That base level leaves only 22% of reservoir storage available for any approaching super flood. The base level must be lowered so that the Army has more storage available at the start of each year’s runoff season. In order to achieve that lower base level, water could be evacuated from the reservoirs in late March/early April, late May/early June, and again in November into the wider lower river. Releasing water during late March/early April and November would aid the navigation industry along the Mississippi, which actually has a viable, economically-important barge industry. A new plan must also consider conservation of land throughout the Missouri basin. When a post-flood assessment is conducted by federal authorities, it is going to find that the Great Dakota Plow-up of CRP land in recent years contributed mightily to the flood. CRP acres and native grassland areas need to be restored to hold back run-off from the big river and its feeder streams. The issue of housing construction and industrial development in the river valley must also be part of a new plan. The placement of human constructs in the floodplain must end. The high costs of the 2011 flood will be largely the result of ignoring the simple truth that development in a floodplain invites disaster.
A new plan also needs to democratize the river, making it accessible to more Americans. A lower river, flowing through its floodplain, would be a more biologically-diverse, aesthetically-pleasing, and accessible place. Hunters, fishers, bird-watchers, boaters, campers, hikers, and bicyclists could recreate along the new Missouri. Today, the lower river is confined behind millions of tons of riprap. It flows at an inhospitable speed of six miles per hour. It is dangerous for boaters, fishers, and swimmers, especially off the ends of the wingdams. A wider, slower river would be approachable. It would be a river for the many rather than the few in the barge industry or business of farming to the river’s bankline.
The river and basin need to be envisioned as a singular living system. A multitude of species live along or within the river and its tributaries, including humans. All of those species are mutually supporting. We need birds, fish, and insects to live; those creatures need us to live as well. For example, we need fish as a source of protein, fish need us to ensure the waters in the river are not degraded through erosion or pollution. The various parts of the basin cannot be divorced from one another. The loss of CRP acres in North Dakota negatively affects farmers in the lower valley. Pollution at Sioux City negatively affects fish and fishers at Omaha. Oil spills in the Yellowstone at Billings degrades water quality for those living downstream. The ecological health of the entire system must be part of any management plan. A healthy ecosystem, that is rich in life, will improve human health and well-being. Finally, the future plan must take into consideration climate change. Heavy rainfall events will in all likelihood become more common. The river will consequently become more voluminous. The government engineers will need to implement policies of adaptive management for that new environmental situation.