By Brad Walker, Rivers Director July 11, 2014
Illustrations and other contributions by Joe Mohr
1. Introduction – What we have wrought on our Midwestern rivers
Row crop agriculture has always been intricately tied to the promotion of barge navigation on our large Midwestern rivers, primarily for exporting corn, wheat and more recently soybeans. Agricultural interests were heavy promoters pushing to change our rivers into barge canals and to this day continue to lobby for expansions of the system.
Because none of our rivers are deep enough for their full lengths for the minimum nine-foot drafts required for towboats used, especially during low flow periods, engineers called for alterations on an unprecedented scale to create an adequate channel depth and width for these over-sized barges. Conveniently, the river alterations actually reinforced the connection with agriculture by easing the conversion of floodplains to cropland, in some locations creating new land that was immediately placed into agriculture.
On the Missouri River this involved constructing massive dams upstream and then shortening, straightening and narrowing the lower portion of the river to the point that it has little resemblance to the original river. About 522,000 acres of floodplain and riverine habitat were lost through the process of constructing a nine-foot channel; all of that acreage altered and much of it, as well as land along the river created by the process, became levee-protected corn and soybean fields.
Congress authorized the US Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) to channelize the river several times. The final iteration of this process is called the Bank Stabilization and Navigation Project began inthe early 1950s and was completed about 1981, paid for by taxpayer funding. Massive impacts to river habitats have resulted.
Much the same has occurred in the Upper Mississippi River (UMR) and Illinois River from the construction of the nine-foot channel there. In the areas north of St. Louis where the rivers are not consistently deep enough they were impounded with locks, which are low-head type dams constructed solely for navigation purposes creating pools rather than flowing rivers (See Figure 2).
The alterations constructed below St. Louis in the Mississippi River were much the same as Those built within the Missouri River. Again, the floodplains were the site of large losses of natural habitat, and remaining floodplains were turned into flattened monoculture-row crop landscapes protected from the river by levees.
On all three rivers where the floodplains have been disconnected from the river through levees and where navigation structures such as wing dikes and chevrons (See Figure 3) have been constructed indications are the floods levels have significantly increased, potentially by10 feet or more.
In all regards, this river alteration process was taxpayer funded for the benefit of a small group of special interests claiming that all Americans would benefit.
The loss of these large tracts of floodplains, and the wetlands contained within them, has had a huge negative impact upon the ability of the rivers to function properly. These Midwestern floodplain rivers are now unfortunately welfare-assisted barge canals. But of even more concern than that is the loss of their floodplains. As a result, floods have become worse because wetland flood storage is reduced, pollution absorbing capabilities were lost, recreational opportunities are significantly lessened or changed, major flyways have disappeared or been appreciably reduced, and the game and fish once plentiful were drastically impacted. There has been no equitable replacement of these lost ecosystem services (and there are others as well not listed here).
Other enlightened countries are either considering or actually beginning to return their rivers to a more natural state recognizing the benefits to the public will far outweigh the reduced private gains. In England groups are trying to provide incentives to farmers for retaining flood waters on their land and adding meanders back into streams. The Dutch, considered by many to be the world’s experts in flood control, are already “making room for the rivers” by reconnecting rivers to their floodplains and abandoning the philosophy of building ever higher levees.
2. The major culprit
There are many well-documented critiques of the industrialized agricultural system, so we will not dwell in detail about why and how it is unsustainable and bad for future generations. Instead, we will focus upon primary related issues that we believe need to change and why.
Cleaning Up Agriculture
Since we are talking long-term in this article, we believe a concurrent, long-term step should be the replacement of the current chemically-dependent industrialized agriculture model that has caused so many environmental, social and economic problems.
We use about a billion tons of pesticides each year, many of which have become more concentrated and most of which have not been adequately tested for their impacts upon humans. Atrazine is one of the most used chemicals, especially for growing feed corn. Its negative human health impacts, including endocrine disruption, cancer and reproduction problems, are just now being revealed. Per the Natural Resources Defense Council in our agricultural communities, about 75 percent of the stream water and 40 percent of the groundwater samples tested by the U.S. Geological Survey were contaminated by Atrazine.
A recently highlighted impact is the near extinction of North American Monarch butterflies. The evidence for their demise points directly at the expansion of the pesticide-dependent, monoculture agricultural system, which has killed the vast majority of the native plants upon which the Monarchs depend. Monarchs are pollinators and provide benefits to humans in this regard. Of at least equal concern, and greater economic impact (USDA estimates $15 billion in crop value), is the impact of the industrial agricultural system’s pesticide use upon bee pollination, as 30-50% of our nation’s bee population has died.
Industrialized agriculture is a system that was justified with false assumptions; in reality it is unsustainable from a natural resources perspective, does not provide more food than sustainable methods, causes numerous health problems, and has concentrated all aspects of agriculture into a small powerful cabal that wields too much influence in our educational, political and financial institutions.
The promoters of our fossil fuel-dependent, industrialized system have spent considerable time and effort creating myths to support it, largely through the taxes of Americans. The first and foremost is the “Feeding the world” myth. This myth we discuss in a report (page 18) Missouri Coalition for the Environment released in 2012 entitled Our Future? In truth, by volume the crops we primarily grow and export are field corn and soybeans, which also make up most of what is shipped on the UMR and Illinois River. Neither crop is going directly into the mouths of humans anywhere on the planet in any significant amount. They are used to feed animals and vehicles, with a small percentage going into our bodies mostly as high fructose corn syrup, oil, and other food additives (See Figure 2.1).
As the acres of corn and soybeans planted in the best farmland in the country have grown we have become more dependent on imported fruits, vegetables, seafood, meat and cheese that we actually eat. Concurrently, our reliance on the vulnerable landscape of California for most of our vegetables poses threats to our food security as severe droughts and water shortages become common in the west.
The majority of the levee-protected farmland in the Midwestern floodplains grows corn and soybeans. Many of the farmers raising them receive taxpayer subsidies for various reasons including insurance. When the floods come and damage the levees and/or their land the taxpayers typically pick up all or most of the bill (See Figure 2.2).
We taxpayers fund over 90% of the river navigation system (page 21) that ships the crops, and other products, on the rivers, compared to virtually zero subsidy for rail transport. Growing these crops requires fertilizers and pesticides as mentioned above, and also creates erosion. These contaminants invariably find their way into our streams and rivers polluting them, which again the taxpayer pays to correct, when it’s even possible.
In a country that prides itself on preserving and promoting its non-existent “free-market” system; industrialized agriculture in a floodplain is one of the worst examples of this hypocrisy.
So what is our industrialized agriculture system and heavily subsidized inland navigation system accomplishing? Not feeding the world as is the common claim, rather feeding the bottom-line of corporations –while polluting our water.
3. Small steps towards river repair
There are currently effective Congressionally-authorized programs on the Missouri, Illinois and Upper Mississippi Rivers that have made steps in improving the health of our important rivers. The major functional problems with them are scope and funding. Unfortunately, full-scale efforts to restore these rivers have both been corrupted by special interest politics.
Missouri River Restoration
The obvious first priority is reconnecting the remaining 100,000+ acres of 166,750 acres of floodplain to the Missouri River authorized by Congress in the 1986, 1999, and 2007 Water Resources Development Acts (WRDA). This is only about a third of the 522,000 acres lost but none-the-less an amount that will have an impact. We are currently on an unacceptable path of possibly attaining the 166,750 acres no sooner than 2042, taking about twice as long as it took the Corps to cause the damage while constructing the nine-foot navigation channel in the first place.
A reasonable estimate of the value to the public of the reconnected 166,750 acres would be about $1.67 billion each year. With most of this land currently planted in corn and soybeans its public value is minimal at best. When all of the impacts of industrialized row crop production are considered, it is likely a negative value to the public.
After the 2011 flood, special interest-influenced Missouri legislators managed to reduce Missouri River Recovery Program (MRRP) funding by about $22 million; defunded an important restoration component of the Program; and defunded a study, the Missouri River Authorized Purposes Study, that would evaluate the original “Authorized Purposes” of our use of the river (it’s hard to find a more anthropocentric term) established 70 years ago when the world was significantly different. Funding for the MRRP was cut by more than $12 million in 2014 and it appears that an additional $10 million cut will occur in 2015.
Congress needs to stop allowing special interests to undermine the public process and restore funding for these essential activities. Congress also needs to direct the Corps to step up the procurement of floodplain land so that we can complete the restoration process in a decade, allowing for a much more focused purchasing of tracts of land in the best locations and in non-fragmented sections.
Upper Mississippi River (UMR) and Illinois River Restoration
It had become obvious by the early 1980’s that both the UMR and Illinois River were seriously degraded, primarily because of the navigation system and hundreds of miles of agricultural levees. In the 1986 WRDA Congress established the Upper Mississippi River Environmental Management Program (EMP), which we chronicle in our Melvin Price Locks and Dam history article.
EMP was the country’s first large river restoration program and was created to learn how to restore the UMR and Illinois River to healthier conditions. Since then, over $450 million has been spent learning the best restoration practices through construction of over 70 projects within and along both rivers. Successes have been achieved, but the EMP was never intended to be the program to actually complete the restoration.
Billions of dollars are needed and a sizeable portion was authorized in the 2007 WRDA. Unfortunately, and ironically as well, Congress tied a $1.7 billion restoration program to a $2.2 billion expansion of the navigation system. The funding for the lock expansion project is shared with the barge industry who currently contributes a paltry $85 million a year for their share of all navigation construction projects, which is woefully inadequate to fund their wish list.
This lack of funding (which industry has caused) is the excuse the navigation industry gives for the lack of appropriations for the Inland Waterways System expansion, and by association the restoration work, on the UMR and the Illinois River.
However, the Corps’ own study (Big Price – Little Benefit – page 17) shows that the proposed new locks are not economically justified. So, since about 2011 when all funding for the unnecessary navigation project was halted, the expanded restoration program has been held hostage.
Congress needs to separate these two projects, which will allow the restoration work to proceed at levels several times those seen with the EMP. Separation will also allow for floodplain reconnection on tens of thousands of acres, especially in the area between the Quad Cities and the confluence with the Ohio River, through either outright purchase of land or the purchase of permanent easements.
In the three previous segments of this series we have discussed the problems created on and within our rivers when special interests work together to manipulate the political system.
In order to justify the destruction of a river, the economic return to the public should have been huge. The reality has been quite the opposite. What has actually occurred are private and corporate gain, accompanied by huge public losses and public obligations for generations to come.
Our political system unfortunately continues to enrich a small group of private citizens and corporations at the expense of the general public. We have paid the costs of building and maintaining this artificial barge canal system and the accreted farmland while we have also lost billions in yearly economic and intrinsic values of these eliminated ecosystem services. With this massive public expenditure and wealth transfer (see the report showing the 90% subsidy of the barge industry) to the river agricultural interests we have also seemingly locked ourselves into an agricultural system that is unsustainable in all regards; a system which primarily grows crops that are not meant for human consumption. This is becoming even more disconcerting when we consider the vulnerability of the area where we actually get most of our food, California’s Central Valley, which continues in a worsening 500-year drought (Figure 4-1). Paradoxically, California’s water scarcity problems are being exacerbated by equally destructive crop choice decisions driven solely for financial gain.
In our current mode of river restoration every decision is based upon maintaining the Congressionally-mandated (and special interest influenced) primacy of navigation, regardless of the actual benefit navigation provides the public. This translates into costly artificial and minimal true restoration with mounting annual operation and maintenance costs.
To add insult to injury, through the restoration efforts to reconnect the floodplains the taxpayers too often pay a premium price for land that their tax dollars reclaimed from the river for farming.
Things need to change, and drastically.
The Our Future? report we have mentioned lists ten recommendations on page 42. They are long-term solutions, which will require changing not just our landscape but our mindset as well. The historical natural resources abundance of our country has erroneously allowed us to forget that we are completely reliant upon a healthy environment and the resources that nature provides. We must acknowledge that we now live in a resource-constricted world and we have to adjust. Below we touch on several of the report’s recommendations in the bullets:
- While world (and growing national) hunger continues, the corporate “Feeding the World” campaign serves up only higher earnings for their shareholders (Figure 4-2). Many food and agriculture experts believe that a diverse, localized agricultural system is not only more resilient; but is more egalitarian, safer for our health and the environment, and provides food security and variety that our current system lacks. Smaller farms that are holistically managed using current knowledge need to replace the huge monoculture agri-businesses that we have allowed to develop.
- Agriculture has been exempted from the Clean Water Act’s requirements for nonpoint source dischargers since the law was written in 1972. Voluntary compliance and other measures to control this pollution have been ineffective and depend upon large portions of the cost burden being assumed by the taxpayers. The exemption needs to be eliminated requiring the agriculture industry to meet standards for clean water.
- The navigation system constructed on most of our large rivers uses oversized barges that required massive hydrological alterations to float them. Navigation, and the boats used on our rivers must evolve to co-exist within a much more natural river.
- Both the financial and environmental costs of re-engineering our floodplain rivers into barge canals are unsustainable. Our “waterways” need to be returned to actual rivers primarily through the reconnection of the floodplains, restoration of wetlands, and ultimately the removal of many navigation structures.
The public benefits of a healthy river must take precedence over the taxpayer subsidized profits of corporations. The status quo is bankrupting us.
We believe that we must move from our current policies and actions that manage our rivers solely for human short-term benefit, to policies that manage our economic and other activities within the long-term capacity of the river system. Ultimately, this will help move us closer to a truly sustainable society.
To do that, Congress must return to serving the humans that elect them, and not the corporations that currently overly influence their decisions. Please communicate with your Senators and Representative asking them to make real change for the future of our rivers.