WJ Editorial
WJ Editorial

Can We Manage River Flows More Flexibly?

At the November 1 virtual press event sponsored by the Mississippi River Cities & Towns Initiative (MRCTI), the Mississippi River mayors put forth seven policy proposals to help forge a national drought policy—something the United States does not currently have. Several of the mayors who spoke said the effects of a severe drought like this one on their communities are worse and last longer than the effects of floods. 

One of the proposals of the mayors was for better inter-basin coordination during times of drought or flood. Which brings us to the Missouri River, whose flow is managed for eight authorized purposes. One of these is navigation—but only Missouri River navigation, not Mississippi River navigation, despite the fact that during droughts, the Missouri River contributes as much as a third of the Lower Mississippi’s flow.

On November 20, the Gavins Point reservoir on the Missouri River will shut off its flow. It will take about a week for the lowered volumes to arrive at the confluence with the Mississippi River. In 2021, the St. Louis gage read 2.41 feet on November 30, and was down to .73 feet by December 3. In 2020, the St. Louis gage read 9.47 feet on November 30, and was down to 6.46 feet by December 3. Unless Mother Nature obliges us with some rain that is not in the forecast, the Mississippi River at St. Louis can expect to lose an additional 1-½ to 2 feet of water in the coming weeks.

It would take an act of Congress to change the authorized purposes of the Missouri River’s six reservoirs to allow the Corps to consider Mississippi River navigation as well as Missouri River navigation. What would be even better, though, would be Congress giving the Corps its own authority to react flexibly to major events like this year’s drought, without having to run back to Congress. If Congress is wary about giving one entity that much authority, perhaps the Corps could exercise it in consultation with other federal agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency and/or the U.S. Department of the Interior. There might be defined parameters of drought or flood emergency that could trigger this authority to act. That might mean modifying parts of the 1944 Pick-Sloan Flood Control Act. There are many ways to go, but it’s a discussion at least worth having. 

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Colin Wellenkamp, executive director of MRCTI, points out that enormous progress has been made in the last 10 years in collecting data about floods and drought events, how to mitigate them and how to plan for them. But without a national drought policy, a lot of that data cannot be put to work. In the past, such as the drought of 2012-13, the Corps has turned down requests for enhanced flows to benefit Mississippi River navigation, taking refuge behind the statute and the Missouri River Master Manual. 

To be clear, the Corps, Coast Guard and industry have done a tremendous job collaborating and reacting to this year’s low water. But reacting, no matter how superbly, is no substitute for long-range policy. The national decision-making process on flood and drought policy, which might take long-term preventive or mitigating actions, is siloed and segregated behind acts and authorities drawn up in a different time before climate change made floods and droughts more common. We hear a lot of talk about climate resilience; here’s a chance to address it.