The Great Missouri River Flood of 2011 is not only challenging the Army’s physical hold on the river, it is also altering long-held perceptions of the river and the human relationship with it. More specifically, the lack of an economic justification for the navigation channel and its flood-prone character are at long last coming under intense public scrutiny.
Since the nineteenth century, the lower basin states of Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska have determined the Missouri’s highest use. Interests in the state of Missouri, and especially within Kansas City, have had the strongest influence on federal policy toward the Missouri River. For example, in the 1920s, real estate mogul J.C. Nichols of Kansas City and his colleagues in the Kansas City Commercial Club (the predecessor organization to today’s Chamber of Commerce) successfully lobbied Congress and the executive branch to build a six-foot deep navigation channel from the river’s mouth to Kansas City, a distance of 364 river miles. Missouri men also played crucial roles in gaining the construction of Fort Peck Dam in east- central Montana. Missourians J.C. Nichols, George Miller, and Senator Bennett C. Clark personally met with Franklin D. Roosevelt in the White House in October 1933 to urge him to approve funds for Fort Peck’s construction. The Kansas City group wanted Fort Peck to capture Montana’s annual mountain run-off and then release it over eight months of the navigation season to sustain flows in a nine-foot barge channel. At the insistence of these men, and wanting to provide jobs to the unemployed, Roosevelt provided monies for the dam. The Army completed that dam in 1940. When floods came roaring down the Missouri Valley in the 1940s, Missourians again came to the fore to press Congress to finance the construction of five dams in North and South Dakota. Kansas City Mayor John Gage worked closely with the Army and Congress to guarantee that the federal government built the Dakota dams to support navigation in the lower river rather than irrigation in the upstream states.
The Missouri River of today, with its dams and thousands of pile dikes and revetments, is very much a creation of the state of Missouri. The Missouri River is not a reflection of democratic values. It does not provide equal benefits to all valley residents. Instead, the bulk of its benefits go to a few individuals and interest groups in Missouri and along the lower valley. Since 1940, and the completion of Fort Peck Dam, the Army’s Missouri River hydraulic system has been managed to support the navigation channel and to provide flood control to the lower valley. All other purposes, including hydropower, recreation, domestic water consumption, irrigation, and fish and wildlife protection have taken a backseat to navigation and flood control.
This year’s flood in the lower river has been exacerbated by the restricted navigation channel. It cannot safely carry away the floodwaters now coming out of Gavin’s Point Dam. Additionally, nearly a quarter of the storage space in the upstream reservoirs is devoted to ensuring that a nine-foot depth is maintained in the river south of Sioux City during the navigation season (mid-March to mid-November). Without the navigation channel and its water storage requirements, the Great Flood of 2011 would have been reduced or curtailed completely.
The flood has made it plain for all to see that Missouri’s decades-long insistence on maintaining the navigation channel and its water storage requirements must come to an end. The safety of the lower valley, its people, and property demands it.
The Lower Missouri River must be remade into a river that more closely resembles its former, pre-channelized character. The river has to be able to flow through its former floodplain. Such a change will lessen flood heights from Ponca southward, protect human life and property, and prevent a similar flood in the future. Also, the storage space devoted to the navigation channel can remain open, rather than filled, in the springtime to absorb any future superflood.
A Lower Missouri no longer managed for navigation will be a more democratic river. The Missouri River should not be wastefully managed and yearly maintained to serve an almost-non-existent barge industry and its small number of backers. The “Columbia Missourian” noted in its May 25, 2010 edition that the navigation channel only carried 175 tons in the drought year of 2008. A remade river without the flood-prone navigation channel will be a truly multiple-purpose river for everyone.
A widened river, moving through side channels, will possess different water depths and speeds, which will represent a boon to fish species. Different fish require different depths and channel velocities. With more fish in the lower river, recreational fishers will find the Lower Missouri a more attractive destination.
At present, the channelized river has an average current velocity of six miles per hour. An unchannelized river will slow down, making it more approachable and user-friendly to boaters and swimmers. Sandbars and islands will form in an unchannelized river, which will mean more ducks and geese. Hunters will find enhanced hunting opportunities in the new river environment. A multitude of vegetative types will grow along the edges of a wider river. As a result, a more diverse collection of animals will be able to live in the river corridor than at present. Bird watchers, hikers, campers, hunters, and fishers will spend money to be next to such a hospitable stream. Towns in the valley can capitalize on the changed environment in a variety of ways, tourism being the most readily apparent. Farmers will also benefit. Although some cropland will be required for the river’s widening, the flood threat posed to the remaining agricultural land will be reduced. As a result, farmers will be less likely in the future to lose income from inundated lands. Farmers could also utilize their riverfront lands to diversify their asset portfolios. Riverfront lands could be sites for eco-tourism, leased hunting, and crops for local markets.
The river has long been monopolized by the lower basin and especially the state of Missouri. Why should a few farmers and business interests keep the lower river from being utilized for more than one moribund, out-dated, financially-bankrupt purpose? The river can be much more than it is now. After this flood recedes, the people of the Missouri Basin cannot go back to the status quo. The Missouri needs to be democratized. De-authorizing the navigation channel from Kansas City to Sioux City, and letting the river into its former floodplain, will begin the return of the lower river to all Missouri Valley residents.