Plan to Raise Missouri River Leads to Concerns about Flooding, Shortages
BROWNVILLE, Neb. The massive old steamboat is on stilts now, resting on the shore about 100 feet from the river it helped reshape.
The Capt. Meriwether Lewis and three others like it shaved about 240 miles off the roughly 2,600-mile Missouri River, the nation's longest, and left a straighter, deeper waterway that is easier to navigate.
But unintended consequences of the straightening -- and the construction of large dams in Montana, the Dakotas and Nebraska -- have affected not only the river but also the lives of those around it.
Reshaping the river to make it easier to navigate made it less hospitable to three animals on the federal endangered species list, including an ancient fish called the pallid sturgeon.
The U.S. Corps of Engineers, which began reshaping the river in the 1830s, is now using a process called a spring rise to artificially raise the river's water level to help the sturgeon spawn.
The spring rises, the first of which was conducted in May, have received praise from environmentalists trying to bring back the sturgeon. But they have also led to concerns up and down the river.
"We keep our eye on trying to provide a balance," said Paul Johnston, a spokesman for the corps' northwestern division office in Omaha.
People living near the reservoirs in the river's northern sections fear depletion of the big lakes and harm to water supplies and tourism. In the river's southern basin in Missouri, some worry about flooding.
When Lewis and Clark used the Missouri to explore the American West, the river was a winding, tree-trunk infested stream that was dangerous to navigate.
When the corps first began working on the river, their mandate was to "go pull snags" that had sunk several steamboats, Johnston said.
In the 1940s the government authorized the construction of several dams and reservoirs. Their goals were flood control, irrigation and navigation, not protecting wildlife.
"You have to reflect on the knowledge and the attitude of the time," said Chad Smith of the conservation group American Rivers. "We were to try to control nature, to make something like the Missouri River fit to the dreams and goals that we had."
When all was done, the river was more hospitable to barges and boats than to some of the wildlife that had thrived before.
Along with the sturgeon, two birds, the least tern and the piping plover, also found the reshaped river's conditions difficult. The birds lost many of the sandbars used for nesting, Johnston said.
But the plan to help the species by increasing water levels could harm humans, critics say.
Taking water from already taxed reservoirs hurts tourism and other economic interests, and in some areas cattle have even gotten stuck in mud where water would normally have been, said Don Pfau, chairman of the Fort Peck Advisory Committee in Lewiston, Mont.
"I think there could be a more opportune time," Pfau said. "They do these releases and just continue to lower the water, making it that much worse."
This year's rise -- which began May 12 and lasted six days -- did not cause flooding, a constant fear in the river's southern reaches.
But there are still concerns that officials will call for more water to be released during future spring rises if this year's releases are deemed insufficient, said Randy Asbury, executive director of the Higbee, Mo.,-based Coalition to Protect the Missouri River, which represents farming, utility and barge interests in the river's southern basin.
"Probably the greatest concern we face right now is the precedent of this spring rise," said Asbury, "and what the future holds with respect to increased magnitudes and durations."
Adding to the fear, Asbury said, are higher flows each spring as snowmelt drains into the Missouri. The manmade spring rise increases flood pressure on what is typically an already high river, he said.
Johnston said the corps would cancel spring rises if the release posed a flood threat or would harm upstream water supplies.
Source: Associated Press