2012 Conservation Policy Priority:
Restoring the Missouri and Upper Mississippi Rivers
The Mississippi and Missouri rivers are essential for fish, wildlife, outdoor recreation, and commerce. Although these great rivers have multiple conservation and recreational benefits and uses, for most of the past 100 years, the rivers have been managed largely for navigation and flood control. Both purposes are important; however, decades of imbalanced and increasingly outdated policies have undermined other uses and values.
The Missouri River is the longest river in North America with a basin covering 10 states from Montana to Missouri. The Missouri carried Lewis and Clark on their historic exploration of the western United States sustaining – and testing – them along thousands of miles. Today, the river would be very unfamiliar to them and many generations of Americans who lived, farmed, hunted, and traveled along it. Multiple species of fish and birds, including the pallid sturgeon, piping plover, and interior least tern, are listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act because aquatic and terrestrial habitat have been degraded, in part, by managing water flows to support limited barge traffic. Between Sioux City, Iowa and St. Louis, 500,000 acres of wetlands, which provide essential habitat and natural flood control, have been lost due to navigation projects.
On the upper Mississippi River from St. Louis north to Minneapolis, an existing network of locks and other navigation projects have effectively reduced the river to a series of pools dramatically altering habitat and recreational uses. Dams have allowed silt to build up filling side and backwater channels. They have eliminated the natural annual water-level pulses that are important to fish and wildlife. Moreover, constructing these dams inundated thousands of acres of forests, grasslands, and wetlands all of which provided habitat for wildlife and other benefits, including flood control.
Although both rivers have been badly degraded, efforts are underway to restore more natural water flows and habitat for fish, wildlife, and waterfowl. For example, projects rebuilding sandbar habitat in the Missouri and creating islands in the upper Mississippi support tourism, economic development, and job creation in local communities. Restoring habitat will also benefit fish and wildlife and hunting, angling, and other outdoor recreation. The League supports investment in river restoration on the Missouri through the Missouri River Recovery Program and on the upper Mississippi through the Environmental Management Program.
The narrow focus on navigation also puts taxpayers at risk. This is especially true in the upper Mississippi. Although the existing navigation system is capable of handling declining barge traffic, the Army Corps of Engineers has proposed building a series of new locks that would cost taxpayers $2 billion or more.
In a report (PDF) released in 2010, the League helped to document how the Corps has been unable to provide the economic justification necessary to begin construction because the costs of the project significantly and consistently outweigh the benefits it might provide. Moreover, we highlighted specific steps the Corps can take now to improve barge flow for a fraction of the $2 billion it estimates new locks will cost. For example, the Corps can use small tug boats to more efficiently move barges through locks or implement a scheduling system that would allow the Corps and barge operators to better plan trips and reduce delays that occur during only a few weeks each year. By incorporating these policy recommendations in the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), Congress can save taxpayers billions of dollars while improving the efficiency of barge traffic along the upper Mississippi.