Missouri River Navigation Recovering From Floods

Businesses, towns and residents along the Missouri River and its tributaries are experiencing yet another period of high water and flooding—the third this year for some of them.

On October 2, a field of logs and other debris caused the collapse of the Brunswick Norfolk Southern Railroad bridge on the Grand River, which joins the Missouri River south of Kansas City.

Yet despite the devastation this year’s floods brought to Upper Midwest farmers and some communities along the Missouri River watershed, river operators say navigation is doing fine—or would be, if chutes designed to protect endangered fish species didn’t interfere with it.

Richard Grenville, vice president of multimodal logistics for Port KC, said this year’s floods had no direct impacts on the port or its operations. “We’re protected by an excellent levee system where we are,” he told The Waterways Journal.

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Grenville said the Port of Kansas City moved 17 barges and a total of 26,000 tons of cargo last month. Some of that was pent-up demand. While the port itself was able to operate most of the year, except for a few weeks during the floods, barge traffic was affected by downstream closures, especially of the Port of St. Louis. The Kansas City port moved 90,000 tons by water last year.

Both Grenville and Steven Engemann, president of Missouri River Towing, say the Missouri River fared much better during the flooding than the Arkansas River further south. Even when downriver closures affected traffic, said Engemann, the port was able to move some barges between Kansas City and Omaha. “There weren’t too many weeks when we didn’t have at least one boat moving,” said Engemann. Engemann acknowledges, though, that the floods hit farmers and their suppliers hard.

The Missouri River fared relatively better partly because the Arkansas River had to deal with more water, and partly because the Missouri River has dikes and other structures put in place by the Corps that help scour out silt and sand downriver when the water drops, mitigating the need for dredging.

The one caveat to that scour effect, says Engemenn, occurs where chutes designed to protect endangered species like the pallid sturgeon result in some shoals. One current shoal is at Mile 217, where tows had to be broken up to pass this year. Corps of Engineers crews are working to improve that one now, said Grenville.

Engemann believes the chutes not only affect navigation and flood control but do little for the species they are designed to protect.

The allegation that the Corps’ policies to protect endangered species on the river interfered with its original flood control mandate was at the heart of a lawsuit brought by landowners along the Missouri River against the Corps of Engineers. In March 2018, a federal judge ruled that the Corps was liable to landowners for flood damages attributed to changes in the Corps’ flood-control policies. The case, known as Ideker Farms v. United States, is still in the phase of assessing damages. News accounts at the time of the ruling frequently mentioned a figure of $300 million, although there has been no announcement of any final settlement figures.

Levee Repairs

At the end of August, the Kansas City Engineer District announced the first stages of a $453 million program of levee repair and construction designed to increase Kansas City’s flood protection by 200 percent. Some of that money was originally authorized as a response to the floods of 1993 and the recognition that the system was inadequate to protect against regularly recurring floods of that magnitude.

The Kansas City District awarded a $33.3 million design-build contract to Michels Corporation of Brownsville, Wis. The company will design, replace and/or modify three pump stations that were originally built between 70 and 100 years ago. A Corps spokesman told local news sources that the old pumps were never designed to handle the loads expected to be placed on them. Project design begins in October and construction should begin in the autumn of 2020.

Other work in the project includes:

• raising nearly 90,000 feet of levees and flood walls by four to five feet;

• replacing 18 closure structures;

• repairing or modifying dozens of drainage structures;

• installing nearly 200 relief wells;

• modifying or replacing 19 pump stations; and

• improving 17 miles of existing levees and floodwalls along the Kansas River in Kansas City, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo.

The project is designed to improve the system’s reliability and reduce the risk of flooding to homes and businesses located behind the levees within the Kansas City metropolitan area. The Corps is responsible for the design, construction and delivery of the Kansas City Levees Program through a bistate partnership with Kaw Valley Drainage District, the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., and the city of Kansas City, Mo.

According to James Lowe, a public affairs specialist with the Kansas City Engineer District, restoring levees along the length of the Missouri River from Rulo, Neb., to St. Louis could take two years.

The Kansas City metro area levee project is likely to take longer than that—perhaps four or five years. (Detailed project information can be found on the Kansas City Levees Program webpage at

Concerns About Next Year

The Corps is currently releasing about 80,000 cubic feet per second (cfs.) from the upper reservoirs on the river that control water levels, compared to an average of about 35,000 cfs. for this time of year. The goal, said Lowe, is to get water levels down to a manageable level in the upper mainstem multipurpose pools.

Those levels of release may extend the navigation season past its usual dates. But a lot depends on this year’s winter precipitation and when the upper pools begin to freeze. The question uppermost in his mind, says Grenville, is, “How much water can they evacuate out of the reservoirs before ice forms?”

Last winter, the upper Midwest received twice the usual amount of snow. If this winter is similar to last year’s, the upper Midwest can expect spring floods similar to this year’s.

As this issue goes to press, the National Weather Service is reporting a storm that “is expected to produce potentially historic amounts of 1 to 2 feet [of snow] possible across portions of central and eastern North Dakota.”