It’s High Time We Envisioned a Different River

In 1891, the Corps began building a six-foot deep navigation channel along the Missouri from the river’s mouth to Kansas City.  In order to constrict the Missouri’s channel area and deepen the stream to six feet, Army engineers erected thousands of pile dikes and revetments along the river’s bank line.  It took the Corps over four decades to complete that navigation channel.  On June 27, 1932, in a ceremony at Kansas City’s waterfront, the bombastic Secretary of War, Patrick Hurley, declared the channel open to barge traffic.  But barge operators stayed clear of the Missouri.  The railroads and highways between St. Louis and Kansas City carried products cheaper and faster than the river route.

In the mid-1930s, the Roosevelt administration authorized and funded the extension of the six-foot navigation channel northward to Sioux City.  Federal officials believed a longer navigation channel, which extended further inland and opened a larger market area to river traffic, would surely attract barge operators to the stream.  In 1940, the Corps completed the navigation channel to Sioux City.  But the hoped-for barge traffic still did not materialize because the railroads continued to provide a cost-effective alternative.

Not long after the completion of the navigation channel to Sioux City, the Lower Missouri began to flood with alarming regularity.  The river bounded out of its constricted navigation channel in 1941, 42, 43, 44, 45, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, and 52.  Never before had the Missouri flooded so often.  The successive floods were the direct result of the completion of the Corps’ navigation channel.  At the time, people recognized the Corps’ culpability in the floods.  In 1944, Missourian J.A. Gray noted, “Now the river is gorged by piling dams, and the floods came [sic] twice a year – two last year and two this year….  What about the future?  Can anyone deny [flood] conditions are getting worse every year?  Of course the floods will be worse.  Until the obstructions [the pile dikes and revetments] are removed there is no hope for the valley.”

In order to halt the flooding, the Corps built five colossal dams in North and South Dakota between 1946 and 1966.  Officials believed the water storage capacity of the resultant reservoirs would compensate for the diminishment of the lower river’s conveyance capacity and the elimination of its natural water storage capacity, which had been provided by its former, wide channel area.  Essentially, the Corps exchanged the lower valley’s natural water storage capacity for artificial water storage capacity in the reservoirs.  The Army’s dam-building program also represented a great land swap. Native Americans in the Dakotas forfeited their agricultural lands for reservoir space while white farmers in the lower valley gained land in the river’s former channel area.  But to the consternation of the Corps, the big dams and reservoirs did not stop flooding in the lower valley.  The Missouri went out of its banks in 1960, 71, 73, 84, 93, 95, 97, 10, and of course in 2011.

Recently, the Corps’ John LaRandeau stated, “To say the [navigation] channel has resulted in increased flood heights is not true….”  In making that statement, LaRandeau knowingly deceived the public.  The historical, and hydrological, record proves without a doubt that the navigation channel has contributed to flooding along the Lower Missouri.  If you need further proof, look at the flood of 2011.  At the peak of last year’s high flows, the UNCHANNELIZED Missouri (the river reach without pile dikes and revetments) from Yankton to Ponca remained almost entirely within its banks.  But as soon as the floodwaters emanating from Gavin’s Point Dam reached the navigation channel at Ponca, the Missouri jumped its banks and shot out across the valley floor.  This is an indisputable, verifiable fact.

LaRandeau also asserted that, “Removing the [navigation] channel would make the river more unpredictable and meandering which would destabilize banks and threaten roads, farms, and towns up and down the river.”  This is another boldfaced lie.  The Dakota dams curtail the Lower Missouri’s ability to meander and erode by decreasing, but not eliminating, flood flows.  Flood flows are the single greatest cause of river meandering and bank erosion.  Last year, along the unchannelized reach, the Missouri did not dig a new course across the valley lowlands, even though its banks remain largely free of riprap.  Gavin’s Point Dam put the brakes on the river’s propensity to wander. LaRandeau also knows that a wider, unchannelized river could be engineered in such a way so as not to threaten roads, farms or towns.  The Corps has already successfully widened the river at several locations south of Sioux City, including the Boyer Chute and Lisbon Bottom.  Neither of those projects has resulted in damage to human constructs in the valley.  The Corps could replicate those projects up and down the river, without posing any risk to society.

Finally, the Corps and the miniscule Missouri River barge industry claim that the navigation channel must be maintained at great cost to society (in both taxpayer dollars and flood damages) because someday in the future – and they never specify when – barges just might make an appearance on the river.  This claim has been made since the early 1880s.  We should not be duped by it yet again.  The navigation channel has never lived up to the expectations of its backers.  It has never carried enough traffic to justify the cost of its construction.  It worsens flooding.  It represents one of the greatest environmental disasters in U.S. history.  It does not make an ounce of economic or environmental sense to maintain it.  It’s high time we envisioned a different river- one appropriate for our times.

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

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