The self-proclaimed Congressional “river guy”?
By Brad Walker, Rivers Director April 29, 2015
Introduction: Why river restoration needs watchdogging
What happens when the supposed “river guy” is actually anti-river?
River restoration is important for water quality and its effect on human health, flood prevention, the economic consequences of flooding on government budgets and individual people, as well as for habitat restoration, species protection, and human quality of life. River restoration is so important to the millions of us who live near a river, source our drinking water from a river, fish in rivers, or visit rivers, that we can’t blindly trust our elected representatives to restore our rivers, protect our health, and fight for a better quality of life for all. We have to actually pay attention to the words they say and the actions they take to ensure the government acts in the public interest.
In MCE’s role as watchdog, we have noticed a pattern of anti-environmental statements from Congressman Blaine Luetkemeyer over many years. Something new and disturbing, however, is his description of himself as the “de facto river guy in Congress.” He did not restrict his statement to being the expert for the river segment within his district, or even the Missouri River. He implies that he is the Congressional river guy for all our rivers.
Let’s take a look at the statements of this “river guy” and see how well his comments reflect a knowledge of river ecosystems, cost-effective flood prevention methods, and how best to use the government resources to improve life for all. Below is a detailed rebuttal to the attacks Representative Luetkemeyer (and he is not alone in this) has made upon the limited river restoration actions that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) are pursuing through the Missouri River Recovery Program (MRRP), as well as some other related river issues. There is no shortage of issues, so I have selected nine positions he has taken to rebut, with pertinent portions highlighted.[The italicized paragraphs within each position below are verbatim from pertinent documents with direct quotes contained within those documents in quotation. Our rebuttal is indented and identified as “Response”.]
1) River restoration projects are wasteful spending:
Congressman Luetkemeyer “is looking forward to continuing to” cut “wasteful spending on projects with no real benefits.” (Columbia Tribune 3-8-15)
“One can’t help but take notice of the significant disparity of funding for habitat restoration and land acquisition and funding dedicated to operations and maintenance,” Luetkemeyer said. “A tremendous emphasis has been placed on habitat restoration and compliance with the Endangered Species Act instead of on the protection of life and property.”
In his fiscal year 2012 budget request, President Obama sought more than $72 million dollars for the Missouri River Recovery Program to help fund environmental restoration studies and projects while just $6.1 million was requested for the entire operations and maintenance fund of the Missouri River. (Congressman Demands Flood Control As Top Priority, Missouri Ruralist, December 2, 2011)
Response: We don’t disagree that we need to cut “wasteful spending”, but we disagree with what constitutes “projects with no real benefits.” The second statement from the December 2011 Missouri Ruralist article provides context to what Representative Luetkemeyer classifies as wasteful spending – “habitat restoration and land acquisition” for the Missouri River Recovery Program. Stating that there is an overemphasis upon river restoration and species recovery at the expense of protecting people and property is completely inaccurate.
The erroneous statement by the Congressman is indicative of our historical amnesia. The efforts to restore our rivers’ ecosystem health is a recent trend with its funding being dwarfed by the long-term funding of misguided projects that have exploited the river for narrow and unjustified economic purposes.
The project that he should be concerned about is the Bank Stabilization and Navigation Project (BSNP). This project, which is the origin of most of the current problems with the Missouri River’s health, has been an abysmal waste of taxpayer money. It is one in a line of poorly envisioned river projects that were based on the erroneous belief that a channelized, levee-constrained river can adequately transfer flood waters out to the Gulf of Mexico. The construction cost of the project was well over a billion dollars and requires at least $7 million each year to maintain. The costs of the repairs to the BSNP from the 2011 flood were in the hundreds of millions of dollars for the open portion of the river. Other floods have also caused millions of dollars of repair costs.
There is no consistent, legitimate commercial barge traffic on the Missouri River, (See Figure 3) which was the primary justification for the project. Then there are the billions of dollars each year in lost benefits to the public for the 500,000+ acres of floodplain and river habitat that the BSNP destroyed or converted to row crops. This is a glaring example of shifting the costs and impacts of a project onto the public so that a small group can reap the benefits. That is by definition “wasteful spending.”
For an example of how much a well organized and connected public river ecosystem project can benefit the public, review the Upper Mississippi River National Fish & Wildlife Refuge. This public jewel encompasses 240,000 acres along the Mississippi River north of Moline, Illinois, has 4.4 million visitors annually, and generated about $123,000,000 in local economic effects in 2011. (The Economic Benefits to Local Communities of National Wildlife Refuge Visitation, USFWS, 2013)
These recovery/restoration efforts are proper and essential responses to the 100+ year imbalance of economic exploitation over commonsense protection of the natural functions of the river. The result of our lack of attention, concern, and funding for protecting the river’s health and ecosystem services and functions has been to the detriment of all but a handful of special interests.
2) America erroneously values fish and birds more than people:
It is preposterous to think that environmental projects are more important than the protection of human life. I do not take for granted the importance of river ecosystems. I grew up near the Missouri River, as did many of the people I represent, yet we have reached a point in our Nation at which we value the welfare of fish and birds more than the welfare of our fellow human beings. Our priorities are backwards. (Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2015 Congressional Record, July 2014 – Rep. Luetkemeyer)
Response: Contrary to the Congressman’s straw man assertion, the restoration effort in MRRP really is about people. Representative Luetkemeyer completely ignores the reason for the need to recover those species, which is to repair the immense damage to the river and floodplain environment caused by the BSNP and discussed in Item 1 above. As we pointed out in our recent article – A River of Special Interests Entitlement, “(T)he three animals are actually proxies for the unprecedented loss of Missouri River natural floodplain and river habitat.” It was Congress who required the recovery of these species along with the mitigation of just a third of the total habitat lost while constructing the BSNP though the MRRP. As we also point out in the article, the mitigation acreage requirement would have been significantly greater had the BSNP been built after 1986 and would have also required a cost share from the project beneficiaries.
It is actually the greater public who will benefit the most from the restoration of the river and floodplain ecosystems; through reduced flooding of their homes and businesses, cleaner drinking water, increased recreational opportunities and other benefits.
3) Environmental activists do not care about river communities:
The plan [MRRP] “was initially created to prevent habitat loss and recover endangered species but has turned into little more than a federally funded and sanctioned platform for environmental activists who have no regard for our river communities,” Luetkemeyer said in a written statement. (KMBC article – Funding for Missouri River study again stripped, January 18, 2014)
Response: Representative Luetkemeyer’s statement is misleading to the public. The irony is the people living in “river communities” he mentions are the very people we are most concerned about. The BSNP, earnestly begun in about 1945 and finally completed in about 1980, has increased, not decreased, their risk of flooding (See Figure 1). This is part of the reason that the Corps has modified its focus upon “flood control” to “flood risk management.”
Many floodplain farmers still believe that flood control is both workable and owed to them by the government. In both beliefs they are wrong, but by holding onto those unreasonable expectations they continue to place themselves and those river communities at risk. We, and most other environmentalists, advocate for the reconnection of rivers in order to increase flood storage to reduce flood risk for all. We also like to recreate and receive the other benefits a healthy river environment provides the pubic when that reconnection is made, which will also benefit those river communities.
4) The Corps should count other conservation programs as contributing to the Missouri River restoration program acres:
“The government’s failure to include the vast existing state, federal and private conservation acres along the Missouri River in determining mitigation acreage goals is inefficient, misleading, and has led to the misallocation of resources,” Luetkemeyer said. “My amendment (to the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) inserts some much needed common-sense into the Corps’ mitigation efforts along the Missouri, slowing down a federal land grab and saving taxpayers millions of dollars.”
Currently, the Corps spends tens of millions of taxpayer dollars each year purchasing private land along the Missouri River. The amendment submitted by Luetkemeyer and co-sponsored by all five of his House Republican colleagues in the Missouri delegation would have the Corps maintain an inventory of all conservation acres along the Missouri and count them toward the current 166,750 acre goal. (Rep. Luetkemeyer press release – Luetkemeyer Continues Ongoing Effort to Improve Management of Missouri River, October 21, 2013)
Response: The 166,750 acres goal mentioned above by Representative Luetkemeyer are clearly outlined in the Water Resources Development Acts (WRDA) of 1986 and 1999 to be mitigation for the BSNP, and as mentioned in Item 2 above are only a third of the lost/damaged 500,000 acres caused by the construction of the BSNP. Contrary to the Congressman’s assertion, the land acquired for mitigation under the MRRP is only purchased from willing sellers – there is no land grab. It might be difficult for some people to grasp, but the mitigation requirement is to create as close to a healthy functioning floodplain river as possible.
Other acreages that are purchased outright or have some type of conservation easement placed upon them through other federal, state or local programs might not necessarily reconnect them hydrologically to the river, which means they are in the floodplain but there is no way for flood waters to move into these areas because levees block the water. They are typically isolated and fragmented (which is bad for biodiversity and flood prevention), and serve only a very local benefit. For example, wetlands reserve program acres are not necessarily helping with flood prevention because the land is typically behind the levee.
A large portion of the acres the Congressman is speaking of had already been established by those other programs in 1999 when Congress authorized the 166,750 acres within the MRRP. It appears that Congress believed then that the acres within those other programs should not be counted. If they desire, Congress can adjust the mandates of these two WRDA’s to include all conserved acres, but if that is done it should be noted that the acres outside of the Missouri River Recovery Program might not benefit the public to the same geographical extent and/or the same degree of public services received, thus short-changing the public.
Representative Luetkemeyer’s outrage and assertion that the government’s omission of these other acres as being “inefficient, misleading, and [a] misallocation of resources” is ridiculous, is itself misleading, and will likely result in unnecessary or ineffective efforts by the USACE and USFWS.
5) The Endangered Species Act needs to be reformed because it is not working fast enough:
Any person with common-sense can tell you our current approach to species management and preservation is not working. Yet, it has been 25 years since Congress reauthorized or made any significant improvements to the ESA. After hearing from a wide-range of witnesses from across the country during the forum, it is clear we are not alone and that changes are necessary to bring the law up-to-date.
While the ESA was created with the best intentions, it has failed to live up to its promise. The ESA intention was to recover species, yet, less than one percent of the total number of United States species listed have been recovered and removed from the list. I will continue my efforts with the working group to promote common-sense reforms to the ESA that ensure proper, results-based use of taxpayer dollars. (Blaine’s Bulletin: Promoting Common-Sense Reforms to the Endangered Species Act Washington, Oct 18, 2013)
Response: We would agree with Representative Luetkemeyer that the Endangered Species Act (ESA) needs improvement but what exactly is the major reason for that improvement is where we depart. The restoration/recovery activities by the U.S. Corps of Engineers and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service provide an example of this philosophical divergence. The Congressman has gone to great lengths to undermine the USACE efforts to restore a significant portion of the Missouri River’s severely damaged environment and the recovery of the three specific endangered species listed by the USFWS that live within that environment. Apparently the Congressman thinks that species can be recovered simply by wishing it so. Unfortunately, the reality is that in order to recover species their habitat actually has to be livable in both quality and quantity. This is a universal truth and a universal problem affecting our ability to recover listed species, and this also explains why progress has been slow. It is not the ESA that has failed; it is us, specifically our obsession with developing every square inch of land that far too often supports destructive, inefficient, and questionable activities at the expense of nearly all other living species.
6) The Corps has no strategy for the Missouri River restoration program:
For entirely too long the Corps has lacked a clear strategy for mitigation on the Missouri River, simply operating on the assumption that more private land acquisition is better irrespective of actual benefits to fish and wildlife, (Rep. Luetkemeyer statement in Congressman Graves’ press release of September 13, 2013 – Graves, Luetkemeyer Continue Efforts to Improve Management of Missouri River)
Response: The USACE MRRP website, and documents accessible from the website, describe a clear strategy that is not based upon “a more is better” approach.
The Congressman’s above statement is an incorrect summary of how the MRRP process works. Bear in mind that the MRRP is attempting to restore a river that was essentially completely destroyed by the BSNP construction. By the time the project was completed, only about 2% of the river and its floodplain habitat remained viable. Expecting major results after the purchase of only about 67,000 fragmented acres of the mandated 166,750 acres is absurd. It is not just “fish and wildlife” that will benefit from what has been mitigated so far, as well as benefit from the remaining 100,000 acres. As documented in Item 2 above, the general public will receive major long-lasting benefits from these acres.
With regard to the limitation of purchasing land only from willing sellers: this requirement reveals a major flaw within all of our restoration projects and creates a major inefficiency in the process because the USACE may not be able to purchase the most effective individual parcels or purchase enough land in a specific area. Ultimately, the overall success of the program will be influenced by what parcels are purchased and at this point no one knows what remaining parcels will be acquired. However, the restoration of a highly damaged, valuable river would, in our opinion, warrant the use of the condemnation process in acquiring the most useful land in order to provide the best possible public benefit. This is especially justified because much of the land near the river channel was created by the BSNP at the public’s expense.
Representative Luetkemeyer’s statement mischaracterizes the MRRP effort, and is being used by the Congressman to undermine both the MRRP process and the program’s funding under the guise of improving river management.
7) The Midwest is the world’s bread basket and barges are the best mode of commercial transport:
He says the Midwest (is) the ’bread basket’ of the world, and if we’re going to continue to feed the world, he says we’re going to have to get exports out, and bring imports in. Luetkemeyer adds that securing such a critical designation from the Maritime Administration would expand the ability in moving products from the Midwest and distributing it to the world.
“A designation allows those areas of river to be able to qualify for some additional, technical assistance from the Maritime Administration,” Luetkemeyer said. “As well as, being in line for some grant money that may be available to improve terminals and other activities that need to be funded along the river.”
“The rivers are the cheapest and best way to do that and we want to make sure those continue to be efficient and effective,” Luetkemeyer said. “There are also significant upgrades that need to be made along the way to be able to get that done.” (Rep. Luetkemeyer, colleagues seek corridor designations on Missouri and Mississippi rivers – Missouri Net, April 24, 2013)
Response: There is little in this statement by Representative Luetkemeyer that is accurate. The Midwest is not the “bread basket” of the world, nor does it “feed the world”. The Midwest grows primarily corn and soybeans that are almost exclusively fed to livestock and vehicles, not to people.
The grants he mentions from the Maritime Administration’s Marine Highway program are simply another level of subsidy to the barge industry, financed with our tax dollars, for a mode of transport that cannot exist without massive subsidies, which total over 90% of the cost of the system. The barge system is artificially cheap for its users because they pay so little of the cost of the system. As far as the public is concerned, the rail system is by far the cheapest mode of commodity transport since they do not rely at all upon public tax dollars. As far as being the “best” transport mode, if we are talking impact to the environment, rail is again far better than barges, certainly on the Missouri River, Illinois River and the UMR north of St. Louis.
8) The Missouri River Ecosystem Restoration Plan (MRERP) is unnecessary:
Luetkemeyer, in his House remarks opposing the study [referring to MRERP], said the study was duplicative – “one of no fewer than 70 environmental and ecological studies focused on the Missouri River. The people who have to foot the bill for these studies and projects, many of which take years to complete and are ultimately inconclusive, are the very people who are at risk of losing their farms, their businesses, their homes, and even their lives today.’” (Rep. Luetkemeyer’s comments regarding defunding MRERP – St. Louis Beacon article dated July 19, 2011)
Response: MRERP is a key component of the MRRP. It is intended to develop projects that will help provide sustainability within the river after the completion of the mitigation efforts. Contrary to the Congressman’s uninformed statement, it takes a lot of study to determine how one restores a nearly totally destroyed river, especially within the limitations that Congress has prescribed by specifically mitigating only a third of the lost habitat area. The destruction (defined as turning a healthy floodplain river into a barge canal with no floodplain) of the Missouri River is an unprecedented action in our nation. Fixing it will be an immense effort even without the restrictions by Congress. Counting up the number of studies is a meaningless task but plays well to those who do not understand the complexities that the USACE and USFWS have to deal with.
These studies and navigation studies are funded by all taxpayers, not just those living along the river. Those people the Congressman lists as “foot(ing) the bill” have received huge benefits, without contributing any cost-share, at the expense of the rest of us for the construction, operation, and maintenance of the BSNP. The loss of any of those unjustified (from an economic perspective) benefits is the real reason they fight the MRRP.
9) The Missouri River Authorized Purposes Study is unnecessary:
The Missouri River, a major tributary to the Mississippi River, is the subject of a multi-state controversy. U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (MO-9) backed a plan to cut a $25 million Missouri River Authorized Purposes Study (MRAPS) from the remaining Fiscal Year 2011 budget calling it “redundant.” (1 Mississippi article – Missouri River Controversy)
Response: For most people MRAPS was one of those USACE studies that made all the sense in the world. It was intended to review the eight authorized purposes – flood control, hydropower, recreation, fish and wildlife, irrigation, water supply, water quality, and navigation – established in 1944 for the Missouri River. It goes without saying that much has changed since 1944. The conditions, priorities, realities, and the scientific understanding of rivers and the environment are significantly different and/or better known today. That is why this study was requested by North Dakota Senator Dorgan and authorized in 2009. Funding was appropriated for fiscal years 2009 and 2010 but denied for 2011.
The elimination of funding for MRAPS was more than the river guy could handle alone, so just about every Congressional member from Missouri lined up against the study because they were fully aware that at least one authorized purpose – navigation – was vulnerable to reconsideration. Navigation as an authorized purpose was vulnerable because even a shallow analysis would reveal that as a purpose on the Missouri River it is completely unwarranted. There is virtually no commercial barge traffic on the Missouri River (green bars in Figure 3) and there hasn’t been for years. It makes the front pages of newspapers when something large is hauled on the river on a barge because it is such a rare occurrence. The vast majority of what is hauled on the Missouri River is sand and gravel, and that material for only a few miles.
There are multiple reasons for Missouri people to defend navigation and most have nothing to do with navigation, because it is not viable (Missouri barge proponents are much like Cubs’ fans – they’re sure the barges will come back next year); but rather it’s about the volume of water that is released for navigation from the upstream reservoirs. Many municipalities near the river receive much of their water from the Missouri River, as do the power plants located along the river. Navigation is really a proxy for that water.
The thing is, if the MRAPS process had continued it would very likely have exposed this all to the public and navigation may have been removed, or at a minimum significantly downgraded, from the list of authorized purposes. But it is also likely that those concerns for water would have been formally and legally incorporated into the water supply authorized purpose. That opportunity has been lost due to short-sighted and selfish political interests – nothing new there unfortunately. And this is what happens when you try to manage limited and inconsistent resources by completely altering a natural system; the result is a contentious mess at every level and a total disconnect from nature and reality with everyone losing in the end.
The idea that not restoring our rivers is an option if we hope to have any chance for a sustainable future is not only wrong-headed from an environmental perspective but also from a reasonable economic perspective. Healthy and productive economies have always been based upon healthy and functioning natural systems. It should be apparent to all that the Missouri River is not healthy nor is it functioning properly.
Afterword: The origin & development of this article
As I look back on the development of this article, a few things occur to me.
I was asked by a reporter to comment on several issues apparently raised in the Missouri Levee and Drainage District Association’s annual meeting held in Columbia on March 7, 2015. I was not invited to this meeting, so I did not attend to actually hear Representative Luetkemeyer speak. But since his reported comments were consistent with other comments he has made in the past and his actions regarding the Missouri River, I was able to answer the reporter’s questions. The article that came out in the Columbia Tribune, however, was so short that I needed to expand on those ideas, give context, and support my claims with detailed facts. That is why I wrote this article.
The comments by Congressman Luetkemeyer at the March 7th meeting are primarily a continuation of his vendetta on nature and his dissatisfaction with the fact that Congress authorized a restoration program for the highly damaged Missouri River.
Frankly, I dislike talking about a U.S. Congressman this way. He has an obligation to help his constituents, but not at the expense and risk of others. Actually, the Congressman is not even acting in the best interests of most of the people who voted for him in this regard. The authorized Missouri River restoration program will benefit many people, including his constituency and beyond, and they are all being adversely impacted by his parochially-focused obstruction. The misleading information being circulated regarding the management of the Missouri River is damaging to the public and to the effectiveness of government.
Update: Given that after 108 years the Chicago Cubs finally won the World Series in 2016, the analogy within this blog article regarding the Cubs and Missouri River barge traffic is no longer valid. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find a representative substitutable analogy.