By Brad Walker, Rivers Director & Emily Render                                   October 17, 2016

The Politics of the Missouri River

In December 2015, 20 members of Congress from the Missouri River Basin signed a letter discouraging the Army Corps of Engineers from fully pursuing legally required, long-planned efforts to include habitat recovery into river management. Whether from ignorance or bias towards special interests, they are interfering in the Corps’ efforts to carry out Congress’ own laws. In the 1980s, Congress wisely began an effort to restore a significant portion of the highly altered Missouri River floodplain and return to the public the benefits of a connected floodplain. Unfortunately, the congressional letter promotes an abandonment of that effort and a break in the public trust. The wasteful and dangerous position taken in the letter puts the general public at risk and continues the trend of squandering their hard-earned income to “protect” special interests who have exploited the river exclusively for their benefit for decades.

After spending billions of dollars since the 1940s on flood control, dams, levees, maintenance, and flood clean-up, the Missouri River floods even worse than before the river was altered. In altering our river, we’ve lost the ecosystem services that a natural river system provides us, such as flood storage, water filtration, wildlife habitat, and recreation.

The Missouri River System was built in an era of big dams and levees, motivated by the erroneous belief that engineering could overcome nature. Ironically, this (mis)management of the river has resulted in increased and more catastrophic flooding, extensive loss of biodiversity, and a river that flows too fast for barge traffic. Government projects that favored floodplain landowners and the barge industry have resulted in a highly degraded ecosystem and the loss of the vast majority of floodplains all along the Missouri River.

Our primary legal basis for challenging the status quo and promoting river restoration is the Environmental Species Act, which is often in direct odds with flood control laws that have propped up the barge industry and protected floodplain farmers. So far, environmental legal challenges have failed – the courts pointed back to Congress to resolve the conflicting laws.

We lose over $2 billion annually in benefits that had been provided by the floodplain and river habitat.

Flooding causes billions of dollars in damages to private property, agricultural land, public infrastructure, levees and dams.

The Corps’ proposed habitat recovery efforts have been arrived at after years of work to integrate environmental concerns and effective flood reduction into the Missouri River System. It is these river management changes – well-considered and hard won after years of collaboration and work – of which Missouri members of Congress spoke so disparagingly in their letter. A letter like this one demonstrates the great need to educate our elected officials about river issues. MCE is actively seeking a champion in Congress who is willing to stand up to the special interests, reinstate funding for river restoration, and complete the Missouri River Authorized Purpose Study so that river management reflects today’s priorities and science. We also need to expand the capabilities of the new Coalition being created to advocate for a healthy and functioning Missouri River. Your support in both areas is critical. You can help in any of the following ways: