WJ Editorial
WJ Editorial

‘Barge Bonanza’ Could Still Happen On Missouri River

This year’s devastating floods that affected a dozen states came in the aftermath of the “bomb cyclone” that struck the entire Midwest. The Missouri River, in particular, suffered unprecedented flooding, hitting Nebraska and Iowa perhaps hardest of all. Full recovery will take years.

In the flooding’s wake, long-standing controversies about how the Corps of Engineers manages the Missouri River have been revived and intensified. In a March 28 editorial, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson reiterated, “For decades, the state of Missouri has strongly argued [that] flood control must be the Corps’ top priority and that reducing flood impacts is the dominant project purpose that Congress authorized to guide the Corps’ management of the Missouri River.”

Parson calls for the Corps to expand Lewis and Clark Reservoir to increase its storage, and for more state control over the Corps flood-control policies. We understand these arguments are popular with state stakeholders.  But river systems need to be managed from a system-wide perspective.

Parson’s argument echoed an important federal case. Last year, in the Ideker Farms case, a federal judge found the Corps liable for causing increased flooding on the Missouri River beginning in 2004, the year it revised its Master Manual to give more weight to preserving habitat for species like the least tern and piping plover. The court found that the flooding amounted to a federal “taking” without compensation of riverside property. A damages assessment phase is ongoing.  Both sides could appeal further. 

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St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger points to the Cora Island diversion as an example of a wildlife restoration and preservation project that also acts as a relief valve during flooding. He says that even though the Cora Island project wasn’t as extensive as originally planned, it is already acting to mitigate and reduce floodwaters. The idea that a series of sponge-like wetland diversions strategically placed along the river, if done right, could help divert and absorb flood waters is intriguing. It suggests that the authorized purposes of Missouri River management need not be in conflict.

But navigation needs to be part of the mix. Messenger argues that since the Corps’ navigation improvements didn’t result in a barge bonanza, the navigation project is a failure. He ignores the 10-year drought that was the real killer of commercial navigation on the Missouri River.

He also conveniently ignores the recent uptick in activity over the last several years. Barge traffic on the Missouri is on the rise!

In response to Ideker Farms, Messenger calls for the Corps to simply buy out adjacent Missouri River property owners with compensation and “let the river run free.” That would kill navigation on the river as surely as the drought almost did.

As noted above, navigation needs to be an essential consideration. The Maritime Administration has designated two marine highways on the Missouri River, covering St. Louis to Sioux City, Iowa. The port of Kansas City is making great efforts to revive Missouri River navigation. The port of St. Joseph, Mo., recently received its first barge cargo. Far from failing, the idea of commercial navigation on the Missouri is still attracting interest and investment, for good reasons. The full revival of commercial navigation would bring great benefits to area users, farmers not least.

Maintaining navigation is still a main authorized purpose of Missouri River management, and funding for that purpose pays for the bank stabilization projects that protect the levees. As popular as it is to pit the authorized purposes of Missouri River management against each other in a win-lose scenario, we believe they can and should be balanced.

Let’s remember that the Missouri River is never just about itself—another reason for system-wide management. In drought seasons, more than  80 percent of the water flowing past the St. Louis Arch originates in the Missouri River.  In 2005, a judge ordered that the Missouri River system must be managed for “downstream navigation.” The Corps interpreted that as downstream in the Missouri River, but we can’t forget the Mississippi that it flows into.