The Army Corps of Engineers has managed the flow of the Missouri River for more than half a century to prevent floods and facilitate barge traffic. Now, that flow is an issue in a number of legal cases around the nation. Host Pippin Ross discusses the conflicting interests with Bill Lambrecht, reporter with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
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ROSS: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Pippin Ross, sitting in for Steve Curwood.
The Missouri River holds a special place in American history. Lewis and Clark wandered its shores two hundred years ago. And for more than half a century, the Army Corps of Engineers has altered the river to prevent floods and allow year-round barge traffic. Now, the Missouri is being tugged in a number of directions by a series of court cases that could change its course.
Missouri River water levels are at the center of a controversy where opposing court rulings may force the Army Corps of Engineers to change the way it manages the river. (Photo: American Rivers)
A district judge in Washington, D.C. has ordered the Corps to reduce the amount of water it sends down river each summer, so that three endangered species have a better chance of survival. But the Corps says it can’t do that and run barge traffic at the same time. Joining me is Bill Lambrecht, a reporter with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who’s writing a book about the river’s history and politics.
Bill, before we dive into a discussion of the interests involved in these cases, tell me what does the Missouri look like in the upper reaches in Montana where the river starts?
LAMBRECHT: One starts at the headwaters of the Missouri River: the Madison, the Gallatin, and the Jefferson Rivers, all named by Lewis as he stood on a bluff looking westward. The water there runs clear and cool and sparkling. I was just on it a couple weeks ago, in the face of some very high bluffs. There are a couple dams there, but throughout Montana it’s much like it was when Lewis and Clark saw it. The river changes markedly as you get into the Dakotas where it’s been dammed up quite heavily. It’s a series of huge lakes. And then in the lower third, the lower stretch, it has becomes more or less a barge canal. It’s much narrower, with these rock-armored banks. It runs swift – sometimes eight miles an hour. If you put your canoe in Kansas City, you’ll be in St. Louis in no time, Pippin.
ROSS: At the center of this is that along the way that you just described, the Army Corps of Engineers have a series of dams that are really integral to the court case. How do those change the river and influence this case?
LAMBRECHT: Well, those dams came about, most of them, after the 1944 Flood Protection Act, which was aimed at just what is says, flood protection, but also to create this great navigable river. That never really happened. The barge traffic is very slim downstream. And there has been a great debate in recent years about whether we should continue operating these dams as we do.
ROSS: There are a number of competing interests up and down the river that have come to a head, of course, in this courts case. One is endangered species. The main argument in the most recent case was to make the flow simulate a more natural river to help protect three endangered species. How would a change in flow help protect animals along the river?
Unnaturally high summer river flows submerge river sandbars where the least tern (left) and the piping plover (right) build their nests. (Photo: American Rivers)
LAMBRECHT: Well, Pippin, take this summer for instance. The Fish and Wildlife Service and conservation interests have argued that where the flow is slower and lower, two of the endangered species, the piping plover and the least tern, could more easily nest and wouldn’t have to worry about high waters washing away their nests and the chicks that are in them. It would also be of some benefit to the pallid sturgeon, that prehistoric looking fish that has all but disappeared in the Missouri River. The recent debate has been focused primarily on the low flow, that’s because the conservation interests realized there was a great drought and it wasn’t time to key on the high flow, which was something else that has been recommended. But were there a higher flow in the springtime, that could recreate the backwaters, the oxbows – all the habitat that has been destroyed over the last half century in the operation of this dam-managed river.
ROSS: But the low summer flows could ground barge traffic, right? I mean, how significant is barge transportation?
LAMBRECHT: Well, that’s exactly the case. There was an analogous fight last summer, where the river was closed down a while to protect these species. I rode up on the first tow boat pushing a lot of barges, and it was a fairly harrowing trip, with a lot of fear of bouncing on the bottom and destroying the barges. And what it has done is it’s made the barge industry viewed as an increasingly undependable mode of transportation. If the flow is lowered, there’s no question that the barge traffic would stop on the Missouri River for much of the summer. And that has been a source of great irritation to that industry, although it’s not very big, and it certainly never reached the proportions that the Corps of Engineers and its promoters anticipated several decades ago.
Barge on the Missouri River (Photo: American Rivers)
ROSS: But what we have going on is the property owners, the barge navigational aspect, and the recreational aspect along the river is pretty much up in arms over this.
LAMBRECHT: Absolutely. The river has a finite amount of water upstream. In addition to the whole species debate, there’s a big fight over who gets the water. I was just upstream recently in South Dakota where at some of the lodges the boat ramps look like high dives. The water is down 20 feet or so. Then you get downstream where I’m from, in the St. Louis area. There is a great need for water, not just for the barges but for the municipalities, for power plants. So there’s a great underlying fight for water here, no question.
ROSS: I realize that the Missouri is your purview and turf, and I kind of hate to put you on the spot this way, but this smacks of awfully broad national, if not global, implications about water.
LAMBRECHT: Well, I think that’s the case. There’s also, I think, some case law – some precedent here – with regard to the Endangered Species Act. That isn’t quite an enduring law but there are a lot of sentiments in Congress that I see about changing that. There’s a debate here about the needs of creatures versus the needs of people. So this may be among the several cases in the country right now, where we sort out this question of who’s to benefit from our rivers.
ROSS: Bill Lambrecht is a reporter with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Thank you so much for speaking with us, and good luck with the story.
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