Along The Missouri – We Are Not Out Of The Woods Yet

It’s been almost six months since the end of the Missouri River flood.  Since then, the upstream reservoirs have been drained of their floodwaters, the lower Missouri Valley has dried out, and the Corps has commenced the reconstruction of damaged dams, levees, and channelization structures.  To add to the apparent good news, officials recently stated that the lack of snow in the mountains and dry conditions across the prairie-plains region have dramatically reduced the probability of flooding along the Missouri main-stem in 2012.  All appears well along the Missouri.  The worst is behind us – or so it seems.  But before we engage in a collective sigh of relief, we should recognize that big, big problems still confront the residents of the Missouri basin.

Last year’s flood covered hundreds of thousands of acres of the lower valley with Missouri River silt.  In some locales the silt is six feet deep.  Drought conditions have dried-out that silt, making it vulnerable to wind erosion.  If the drought worsens, we can expect a loess bowl this summer in the lower valley south of Gavin’s Point Dam, which will lessen visibility, diminish air quality, harm human health, and contribute to the erosion of topsoil.

Hydrologists noted that in some locations, the channelized Missouri degraded its bed three-feet during the 2011 flood.  That three-foot drop in the river’s elevation will have all kinds of negative environmental repercussions.  It will necessitate the extension of riverside boat ramps and water intake pipes; it will drain water from the valley’s wetlands, harming fish and wildlife; and it will drop the valley’s water table a corresponding three feet, which will require farmers and municipalities to dig deeper water wells.  Degradation will lead to tributary stream down-cutting, which will damage rural bridges and intensify erosion on cropland.  We can halt degradation by widening the Missouri River channel by a mere 400 feet.  But lower valley farm interests oppose that reasonable solution.

The long duration of the flood killed millions of trees in the valley south of Yankton, South Dakota.  Those trees provided vital habitat to a myriad of species, including songbirds, white-tailed deer, raccoons, opossums, and turkeys.  As the trees go, so go the critters dependent on them.  Without a massive tree replanting effort, wildlife numbers in the valley will likely crash, which will have detrimental effects on hunting and other forms of outdoor recreation.

The above-mentioned problems are bad, real bad, but they do not represent the worst of it.  Under pressure from the shamelessly self-interested Farm Bureau Federation, the Corn Grower’s Association, the Missouri Levee and Drainage District Association, and the miniscule Missouri River barge industry, the Corps is at this very moment rebuilding the same system of levees and channelization structures that worsened flooding last year.

In 2011, dozens of levees failed because they stood too close to the Missouri.  Those levees compressed the river’s floodwaters, forcing the Missouri up and over the structures.  In October 2011, Brigadier General John McMahon, who oversees the Missouri, acknowledged that fact.  He stated that some levees should be pulled back from the river.  Levee setbacks would lessen future flood heights and flood damages.  But the farm lobby rejected McMahon’s ideas.  Farm interests want the levees rebuilt close to the river.  Their outlandish stance is easy to explain.  They do not want to give the Missouri any additional room.  Instead, they want every conceivable acre of the valley planted in corn or soybeans – which are now fetching record high prices.

During last year’s deluge, the Missouri destroyed countless pile dikes and revetments within the navigation channel.  In doing so, it naturally widened itself out and enhanced its ability to absorb high flows.  Yet, the Army is now rebuilding the constricted navigation channel.  Its reconstruction benefits only a select group of valley farmers and the nearly non-existent Missouri River barge industry, while putting society-at large at risk of another catastrophic flood.  With the navigation channel rebuilt, farmers will again be able to grow corn and soybeans inches from the water edge, while barge operators will be able to float one or two barges a year on the stream.  The Corps isn’t happy with this situation.  Just this past week, McMahon admitted to a St. Louis audience that he did not feel good about having to rebuild the navigation channel and the misaligned levee system of old, knowing that both foster flooding.

If you think this is an outrage and a misappropriation of taxpayer dollars – and I hope you do – because it is – then do something about it.  The main players in this travesty are Missouri’s congressional delegation (especially Roy Blunt) and the members of the state’s farm lobby.  Put political pressure on these people to reverse course.  Because if their distorted vision for the river becomes a reality, we can expect another disastrous flood in the not-too-distant future.

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