End the Expense of Repeating Failure: Fix the River
// Written by Brad Walker, Rivers Director December 6, 2013
When special interests wanted to narrow, dam, shorten and channelize our rivers for their benefit they never had any problem with spending the public’s money with reckless abandon and without regard for any natural resource or fiscal consequences. Those barge, grain, chemical and coal interests who have pressured lawmakers for levees, dams, wing dikes and dredging have suddenly gained a fiscal conscience about the public’s money and now spend much of their time lobbying to stall or stop programs aimed at mitigating river damage, while second guessing advice offered by river ecological experts or those who opposed the river’s destruction in the first place.
The Missouri River is the victim of all this damming, shortening and channelization, primarily through what is commonly called the Pick-Sloan Project. Taxpayers foot the bills. Contained within the 1944 Flood Control Act, as amended, is the following list of eight purposes for the Missouri River:
- flood control
- fish and wildlife
- water supply
- water quality
At the time the first two, flood control and navigation, were many people’s priority; but irrigation, power and water supply had their strong supporters. Times have changed, along with our knowledge and priorities. Flooding continues. Navigation never developed to a level to justify its cost and impacts; recreation expanded on the reservoirs generating large local revenue; fish and wildlife interests have documented the immense damage the Pick-Sloan Project and the subsequent Missouri River Bank Stabilization and Navigation Project (BSNP) has caused to the river species and their habitats. Water quality concerns from urban and rural pollution have become a major concern. Just recently with the advent of hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas in the basin, water supply concerns are growing.
In 2009, Congress authorized the Missouri River Authorized Purposes Study (MRAPS) in the Omnibus Appropriations Act. The objective of the study was to re-evaluate the authorized purposes established in the Flood Control Act of 1944 and other relevant court rulings and legislations. The Act authorized $25 million for what was to be a five year process. The Act also charged the Army Corps of Engineers to submit a report to Congress, who would then make any decisions regarding changes in the authorized purposes.
Now here is where things get interesting. A comprehensive and objective review of how we manage and use the river today makes a lot of sense. However, for those who have benefited from certain authorized purposes that did not pan out as predicted, this study is considered a threat. These are largely the special interests that caused the havoc from altering the river in the first place. They have significant political sway with elected officials on state and federal levels. So when they saw where an objective, fact-based study would lead, the possibility of their interests slipping in the priority list, and the potential for losing something they had manipulated to obtain, they headed directly to their representatives’ office to strip the funding for MRAPS.
Missouri Representatives Blaine Luetkemeyer, Sam Graves and Vicki Hartzler were among those leading the blind charge. They succeeded in defunding the study in 2011 after spending only about 30% of the authorized funding.
Ironically, the 2011 flood and the 2012 drought underscored the acute need for the study. Nevertheless when these special interests realized that their subsidized income stream might be reduced, they decided it’s better to continue short changing others in order to protect their handouts; and again, without considering the consequences.
Another program not in favor by those ingrained special interests is the Missouri River Ecosystem Restoration Plan (MRERP), authorized in the Water Resources Development Act of 2007. MRERP is a plan on how to restore and recover the Missouri River and to provide guidance to the Missouri River Recovery Program (MRRP) by identifying actions required to:
- Mitigate losses of Missouri River habitats
- Recover threatened and endangered species
- Restore the Missouri River ecosystem to prevent further declines of other native species
Per the Corps’ website, “The final product of the planning process will be a document that outlines a future vision for the river and the tools needed for implementation. As part of the process, the Corps will produce an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to ensure that the environmental effects of restoration activities recommended in the plan are analyzed and considered before implementation begins. The EIS process will also ensure that decision makers are fully aware of the trade-offs, impacts and benefits of a range of reasonable alternatives.”
It was intended to specifically “develop a plan (that) will give federal, tribal and state agencies as well as stakeholders an opportunity to:
- Identify criteria and opportunities for future restoration projects.
- Participate in a process that prioritizes restoration efforts.
- Encourage partnerships to develop and implement restoration efforts.
- Align restoration and recovery projects, programs and policies across government and tribal agencies.
- Actively engage in the design of a basin-wide plan for restoring the Missouri River.
- Develop more sustainable and system-wide approaches to restoration.”
MRERP was going to provide a roadmap to restoration and recovery of the river habitats and the species within them through the Missouri River Recovery Program (MRRP). Unfortunately, because the MRRP is couched in the terms of the Endangered Species Act which focuses on wildlife, the human benefits from the thousands of acres of restored natural habitat are discounted or ignored. At approximately $10,000 annually per acre, the planned 167,000 acres MRRP requires to mitigate the Bank Stabilization Navigation Project damage would equate to $1.67 billion in public benefits each year, while concurrently providing significant flood reduction and water quality improvement.
As far as the special interests were concerned, MRERP was just another subversive attack upon their gravy train and it had to be killed. So they again exploited the devastation of the 2011 flood by lobbying those same representatives to defund MRERP.
At this point we must mention that Congress appropriated an extra billion dollars for levee and other river infrastructure repairs after the 2011 flood, at least $400 million of it for the Missouri River. Another $114 million (at least) was paid out for personal claims including crop insurance. Also, the taxpayers have paid many billions of dollars to build many of the Missouri River levees and all of the major navigation infrastructure.
In July 2011 the St. Louis Beacon wrote an informative article on the defunding of MRERP and MRAPS, which contained quotes from the above mentioned Missouri representatives providing their reasons for pushing the defunding. These quotes, some of which we print below, help us understand how disconnected our elected officials, and the special interests lobbying them, can be from how the natural world works and how dependent we are on its proper function.
Representative Sam Graves – “We spend too much to protect fish at the expense of people.”
Representative Vicky Hartzler – “While preserving a habitat for the pallid sturgeon, the piping plover and the least tern is important, we cannot allow these narrow interests to take precedence over the lives and activities of farmers, businesses, and residents on or near the river.”
Blaine Hurst of the Missouri River Farm Bureau – “The Big Muddy has been a dream of environmentalists since the Great Flood of 1993, and the Fish and Wildlife Service can hardly let the livelihoods of a few farm families stand in the way of swamps as far as the eye can see.” Environmentalists represent a “slice of the populace that misses malaria and longs to return to the primordial ooze.”
Representative Leutkemeyer – “Congress has a duty to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely” while he works to protect funding for the nearly nonexistent navigation on the Missouri River.
Those who live and work along and within the floodplains of the Missouri River have endured many devastating floods over the last century. Most experts now believe that our river floods have become more human-caused disasters than natural disasters because of our immense alteration of the rivers including hundreds of miles of levees. Despite this, too many people still have the delusion that we can and should try to control nature no matter the cost, while the damages only increase and the bills only get bigger. The total cost of “natural” disasters in 2012 was $110 billion per the National Climatic Data Center. Since 1980 over a trillion dollars in damages have been documented for 144 events, each costing at least $1 billion.
We may be near, or have reached, the point that we can no longer pay all of the costs required to put Humpty Dumpty’s house, levee, or flood control project back together. Those who live in harm’s way may soon be required to pay a portion, or even all, of their losses. Congress needs to set proper and science-based priorities. It is likely cheaper in the long-run to move people out of vulnerable floodplains, change to flood tolerant crops, modify roads and bridges, and reconnect floodplains to their river for added flood storage than to continue along this futile cycle of repairing flood damage. It’s time for us to realize and accept that the endangered species whose habitat is disappearing are actually “canaries in the mine” that are sending us a very important and obvious message – Fix the river or suffer the consequences.