Recently, the Omaha District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the organization charged with overseeing the management of the reach of the Missouri River through southeast South Dakota, western Iowa, and eastern Nebraska, announced that it has begun repairing the Missouri River navigation channel between Sioux City, Iowa, and Rulo, Nebraska, a distance of 116 river miles. During last year’s historic flood, the Missouri’s powerful currents destroyed the Army’s wingdams and revetments in dozens of locations south of Sioux City. For example, near Tekamah, Nebraska, the Missouri blew out its riprapped banks, outflanked a series of wingdams, and cut deep side channels through soft, sugary alluvium. At Decatur, Nebraska, the Mighty Missouri almost toppled over the Decatur Bridge after it burrowed a 50-foot deep hole into the bridge’s east abutment.
What might surprise you is that the damage to the navigation channel has had a number of benefits. In knocking down the Army’s control structures, and naturally widening its channel area, the Missouri increased its conveyance capacity. In other words, the river enhanced its ability to safely carry away flood waters without overtopping its banks. Additionally, the new, wilder river created habitat for fish, birds, and certain mammals. It is not a mere coincidence that fishing is now so phenomenal on the Lower Missouri. Fish are doing well this year because of the new aquatic habitat created last year.
And yet, the Army has no intention of allowing the Missouri to remain outside of its navigation channel. It is going to put the Missouri back inside its rock-lined cage. The Army plans on fixing every single one of the damaged wingdams and revetments along the lower river. In order to accomplish that goal, the Army will pay private contractors $8.3 million dollars to dump 250,000 tons of quarried stone along the Missouri from Sioux City to Rulo. To put that amount of rock into perspective, consider that that is enough stone to fill 2,500 standard 100-ton capacity railcars or 12,500 twenty-ton capacity Army M917 dump trucks. By the way, those dump trucks, if lined up bumper-to-bumper on Interstate 29, would stretch all the way from Sergeant Bluff, Iowa, to Missouri Valley, Iowa, a distance of 69 miles. Put another way, the Army is going to place 107 twenty-ton dump truck loads of rock along each river mile between Sioux City and Rulo. This is all going to be done to rebuild a segment of the navigation channel that carries no barges and worsens flooding. If that isn’t batshit crazy, I don’t what is. What’s worse, in August, the Army awarded a $45 million dollar contract to several construction firms to repair the navigation channel from Rulo southward. So even more rock is going into the river along that reach. An Army spokesperson, when referring to the reconstruction of the navigation channel, noted rather gleefully that the Army is now “swinging rock,” which means it is using backhoes to “swing” tons of rock from floating barges to the river’s banks.
The Army is rebuilding the navigation channel despite the fact that: 1) doing so will constrict the channel area of the river, decrease the Missouri’s conveyance capacity, and increase the likelihood of floods in the lower valley; 2) the navigation channel did not carry a single barge between Omaha and Sioux City between 2004 and 2009 (data on barge traffic for the period 2009 to 2012 is sketchy, but it is unlikely any barges arrived at Sioux City during that later period because of excessive high and low flows); 3) the navigation channel harms fish and wildlife and destroys habitat; 4) the navigation channel fosters degradation, which has contributed to a nearly 15-foot drop in the elevation of the Missouri River, and the water table, at Sioux City since 1955; 5) Army leaders have acknowledged that the navigation channel is an impediment to the effective management of the Missouri River hydraulic system; 6) the maintenance of the navigation channel’s nine-foot depth from March through November each year requires the draining of the Dakota and Montana reservoirs – even during drought episodes. The loss of reservoir water to the navigation channel in dry years hurts the reservoir fishery and the tourism industry based on it.
So why is the Army swinging so much rock into the Missouri River when basic common sense rules against such a course of action? Because the Lower Missouri is not managed in the public interest. It is actually managed to financially benefit a small, politically powerful, wealthy group of corporate farmers (represented by the Farm Bureau and Corngrower’s Association) and energy corporations such as MidAmerican Energy. This corporate elite owns the Lower Missouri. You may believe the U.S. is the greatest democracy on earth (and I have prime river bottom real estate (sand dunes) west of Onawa, Iowa, to sell you), but the reality is that Joe and Jane Average Citizen have almost no say in how the river is managed by the Army.
Last fall, corporate farmers pushed to have the navigation channel rebuilt because that narrow channel allows them to grow more corn and soybeans (now at record high prices) in the valley bottomlands. A wider, less flood-prone river would require more of the valley bottomlands for its channel area. Valley farmers do not want to give the river any extra wiggle room. Energy companies also wanted the navigation channel’s reconstruction so they could continue to siphon millions of gallons of free water from a constricted, deep river instead of having to extend their precious intake pipes into a wider, shallower river. That the navigation channel increases the odds of another catastrophic flood in the lower valley is of little concern to the river’s corporate masters and apparently to the Army Corps of Engineers. The corporate elite are going to do what they damn (no pun intended) well please with the river.
The current management problems along the Missouri are emblematic of what ails the U.S. political system and U.S. environmental policy. The U.S. lacks effective, socially beneficial environmental policies because Corporate America, acting through its political lackeys, has repeatedly undermined scientifically-based policies. Corporate interests torpedoed federal government action on climate change, oil well fracking, and now Missouri River flood mitigation and ecosystem restoration. Last year, the farm lobby labeled the environmental groups working to prevent the reconstruction of the navigation channel as radicals. But in fact, the farm lobby holds the most radical, dangerous policies for the Missouri River. Corporations, in their pursuit of profits, are ignoring the public interest and jeopardizing public safety, and their doing it with the acquiescence of both political parties. But it must be noted that in the Missouri Basin, the GOP has been more accommodating of corporate farm interests and energy companies than the Democratic Party. That is partly because the GOP dominates the levers of power in the Midwest, and partly because the GOP is unabashedly pro-corporate. Governors Branstad and Heineman, Senators Grassley and Johanns, and western Iowa’s U.S. representative, Steve King (who once praised the despicable Senator Joseph McCarthy), have long kowtowed to the Farm Bureau, Corn Grower’s Association and energy conglomerates on environmental policy. Sadly, political leaders like these are failing the majority of us, while they work diligently to promote the interests of a select, wealthy minority. All of this explains why the Missouri is going to flood again in the future. So remember, when the next flood comes barreling down the valley and carts your house off to the Gulf of Mexico don’t blame a vengeful Mother Nature or an incompetent Army Corps. Rather, you’re flood losses will have been hoisted upon you by the corporate masters of the Missouri.