It’s Time to De-Authorize the Missouri River Navigation Channel

It has been almost seven months since the end of the Great Flood of 2011.  In the intervening months, it has become clear that the Army Corps must change how it manages the Missouri River.  Missouri Valley residents cannot go back to “business as usual” along the Mighty Mo.  To do so invites disaster.  But what must change?

Lower valley farmers, represented by the Farm Bureau Federation, the Corn Grower’s Association, and the Missouri Levee and Drainage District Association want the rapid reconstruction of old, misaligned levees, as well as the flood-prone navigation channel.  Those two antiquated hydraulic systems worsened flooding last year and will contribute to flooding in the years ahead.  But the members of those three organizations want to be able to raise corn and soybeans (which are now fetching record prices) on every conceivable acre in the lower valley, so they are aggressively promoting a policy that substantially increases the probability of another major flood. Unfortunately, the farm lobby is gambling with the safety of the lower valley in order to maximize farm income.

Missouri basin residents do not want, and cannot financially afford, a river management policy that puts the lower valley at risk of another deluge, while only benefitting a small group of farmers.  What is required is a management plan that is advantageous to everyone in the Missouri basin.  Thus, any new management scheme for the Missouri must include the de-authorization of the Missouri River navigation channel from Ponca, Nebraska, to Kansas City, Missouri.  De-authorization of the navigation channel will provide a host of public benefits.

De-authorization will end the disproportionate influence a handful of Missouri Valley farmers, and the miniscule barge industry, have over the management of the Missouri.  Rather than the river serving a select few, it would be a river for the many, including the lower basin’s large and growing urban population.  With navigation no longer an authorized purpose, the lower river could be managed for more socially and economically beneficial purposes, including outdoor recreation, eco-tourism, fish and wildlife, commercial fishing, scientific research, ecosystem restoration, and flood mitigation.

If the Corps did not have to provide uniform flows to the navigation channel from March to November each year, it could operate the upstream reservoirs with greater flexibility.  Army officials could more quickly alter reservoir levels to meet changing precipitation patterns.  Flexibility in the operation of the main-stem reservoirs would decrease the flood risk to the lower valley.

At this moment, the Corps is rebuilding the navigation channel.  BG John McMahon, who oversees the Missouri, recently expressed displeasure with having to reconstruct that flood-prone channel.  But because the navigation channel remains a congressionally authorized project, the Corps is required by law to rebuild it.  De-authorization would end the repeated expenditure of taxpayer dollars on a project that actually worsens flooding.

De-authorizing the navigation channel will free the Corps to become more innovative and transparent in its management of the Missouri.  Army engineers will no longer be required to repeatedly rehabilitate and publicly defend the channel’s primitive, costly, and flood-inducing engineering structures.  In the absence of the navigation channel, the engineers will be able to develop new approaches to floodplain management and ecosystem restoration.  Consequently, the Missouri River would become an engineering success story, known the world over, rather than what it is now – one of the U.S.’s greatest environmental disasters.

The navigation channel is the most divisive management issue confronting the people of the Missouri basin.  Since the 1930s, the water requirements of the navigation channel have pitted the lower basin against the upper basin. For example, providing water to the navigation channel for eight months of the year has resulted in the repeated draining of the upstream reservoirs, even during the basin’s periodic droughts.  The loss of reservoir water to the moribund navigation channel has been detrimental to the reservoir fishery and the tourism industry based on it, which has harmed upper basin economic interests.  Without the navigation channel dividing the basin, the basin states could reach a consensus on river management.  Basin representatives would then be able to present a united bloc in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate for the funding of river restoration and flood mitigation projects.

There can be no compromise on the navigation channel.  It must go.  If it remains an authorized project, it will negate our flood mitigation efforts, it will undermine ecological restoration work, it will compete for limited federal funds with more economically vital river projects, it will siphon away water from the upstream reservoirs and hurt the upper basin’s recreation industry, and it will continue to divide the basin politically.  The navigation channel is a nine-foot deep, open wound cutting down the center of the Missouri basin.  It is high time it came to an end.

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