When Lewis and Clark went up the Missouri in 1804, the river south of today’s Sioux City, Iowa, possessed a series of long, graceful bends and a relatively narrow main channel. But in the mid-nineteenth century, this meandering river began to morph into something altogether different. Changes in the weather, in conjunction with the fur trade and agricultural settlement, dramatically altered the appearance and behavior of the Missouri.
A wet precipitation cycle began across the Missouri drainage basin in the 1840s. Heavy winter snows, and torrential spring and summer rains, increased the amount of runoff entering the river.
The fur trade also had an effect on runoff into the stream. In the two decades after the War of 1812, fur traders decimated the beaver population of the Northern Plains and Rocky Mountains. As a result, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of beaver dams fell into disrepair. The collapse of those dams allowed a greater volume of rainfall and snowmelt to drain into the Missouri.
Then, in the 1840s, European-American settlers began occupying the river valleys and prairie lands of northwestern Missouri and western Iowa. The settlers had an insatiable appetite for wood. Consequently, they felled the extensive forests growing along the Missouri and its tributaries. They also plowed under the prairie. Those two actions pushed still more runoff into the river.
Thus, three events converged to create catastrophic flooding along the Missouri – a wet precipitation cycle, the decimation of the beaver population, and agricultural settlement.
Major floods roared down the Missouri Valley in 1844, 1857, 1858, 1867, 1872, 1874, 1875, 1878, and 1881. The 1881 deluge represented the greatest Missouri River flood of the nineteenth century; it devastated communities from Montana Territory through the state of Missouri.
Besides inflicting severe damage on the farm economy, the floods transformed the Missouri.
In order to accommodate the larger volume of water entering the river, the Missouri became straighter and wider, with multiple channels, or what is known in hydrological terms as “semi-braided.”
By the end of the nineteenth century, the semi-braided Missouri looked and behaved little like the meandering river of Lewis and Clark.
In the twentieth century, the Missouri underwent yet another major change – this one brought on by human action. Employing a system of pile dikes, willow mattresses, and stone revetments, the Army Corps of Engineers constructed a nine-foot-deep navigation channel in the river from its mouth to Ponca, Nebraska. The navigation channel narrowed the average width of the Lower Missouri from 2,363 feet to 739 feet; it also eliminated the river’s islands, sandbars, and side channels. For all intents and purposes, the Army turned back the clock along the Missouri, forcing the semi-braided river to once again flow as a meandering stream.
Defying nature carries risks. Specifically, the Corps’ narrow, channelized river lacked the conveyance capacity (the ability to move water downstream) of the former semi-braided river. But in the Dirty Thirties, when the Army extended the navigation channel to Sioux City, that wasn’t a problem. In that dry decade, the Missouri was starved for water.
However, in the 1940s, the rains returned to the Missouri Basin. As a result, the Corps’ engineered, meandering Missouri could not safely haul away the large volume of water entering it.
In every year from 1941 through 1952, the Lower Missouri broke out of its navigation channel and attempted to re-establish its former semi-braided character.
In 1943, Colonel (later General) Lewis A. Pick, who oversaw the management of the Missouri from his office in Omaha, believed the solution to the navigation channel’s reduced conveyance capacity was not to re-establish the Missouri’s semi-braided character, but to build dams along the Missouri main-stem in the Dakotas. Those dams, Pick argued, would keep high flows out of the flood-prone navigation channel.
Pick got his dams. Between 1946 and 1966, the Corps built five massive dams in North and South Dakota. Those dams did reduce the amount of spring and summer runoff entering the river south of Ponca, but they did not completely stop the river’s floods. The channelized Lower Missouri rose above its rock-lined banks in 1971, 1973, and 1984. Then, in 1993, a colossal flood ripped through the lower valley. That flood should have led to a serious re-examination of the navigation channel, but it did not. The Farm Lobby, as well as river navigation interests, killed any attempt to address the navigation channel’s vulnerability to high flows.
Since 1993, climate change has increasingly influenced the Missouri’s water levels. Four of the highest runoff years on record occurred in 1997, 2011, 2018, and 2019. As the earth warms, the Missouri is becoming more voluminous, more flood-prone, and more dangerous. Yet, the Corps, at the behest of powerful interest groups, has not effectively responded to the changing climate or the higher volumes of runoff entering the Missouri. Instead, after every major flood, the Corps has rebuilt the navigation channel, which only primes the river for another flood.
For almost 130 years, the Corps has been engaged in a war against the Missouri. Army engineers have dammed the river, redirected it, deepened it, dumped millions of tons of rock into it, and even dynamited it – all in an attempt to confine the Lower Missouri to a meandering channel. Ultimately, all of those efforts have failed. And although the Corps will never admit it, it has lost its long war against the Missouri. The spectacular floods of 2011 and 2019 are irrefutable proof of that fact.
In most wars, a defeated army either retreats or surrenders. But the Corps can do neither along the Missouri. Rather than roll up its battle flags and humbly march back to its comfortable, air-conditioned offices in Kansas City and Omaha, the Corps needs to stay along the Lower Missouri and remake it yet again, into what it should have been since the late nineteenth century, a semi-braided river capable of safely carrying a greater volume of water.