Better Management of the Missouri River Would Benefit People and Wildlife

Paul Lepisto, Regional Conservation Coordinator
An artificial side channel on the Missouri River

"It's clear now ... we have insufficient capacity to carry water safely through the lower basin."

Brigadier General Peter Helmlinger

That quote came from Brigadier General Peter Helmlinger, the commanding general of the Northwest Division of the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps), during a Senate Subcommittee hearing in North Sioux City, South Dakota, on August 28. Helmlinger went on to say that future management solutions for the lower basin of the Missouri River – from Sioux City to St. Louis - could include widening the river channel and moving levees further back to give the river more room to roam.

Those solutions would help address devastating flooding in the lower basin, which this year started in March and is still ongoing  in many areas. Record rainfall – as much as three to five times the seasonal average – has smashed records in many states and caused massive losses to homes, businesses, and agricultural lands.

One of the dams on the Missouri River

The Corps, which Gen. Helmlinger was speaking on behalf of, is responsible for managing the river’s water. Predicting that the total runoff coming into the river this year will be as much as twice the average amount, the Corps is trying to keep reservoirs at a safe level by releasing much more water than normal from six dams along the river. The Corps expects to stick to this strategy well into the fall, as they prepare the river system to receive next year’s runoff, which will begin arriving in March.

The Corps has a congressional mandate to manage the river. In the past, a lot of this management was accomplished through unnatural alterations to the river. From the late 1930s to the 1960s, the Corps constructed the six dams on the river. In the 1980s, they completed the artificial navigation channel that runs along the lower stretch of the river. These alterations greatly damaged fish and wildlife habitat and created many of the water management problems the basin faces today.

In more recent years, the Corps has strived to implement alterations that more closely mimic nature. In 2006, as part of the Missouri River Recovery Program, the Corps acquired an easement from the State of Iowa and constructed the Council Bend Chute. This chute is one of several artificial side channels intended to replace some of the habitat destroyed by earlier projects. However, the Council Bend Chute suffers from erosion during high flow events and is not meeting its habitat and species recovery goals.

The endangered pallid sturgeon

The Corps plans to address the problems with the Council Bend Chute, and this planning process created an opportunity for the League to submit comments on the Corps’ management of the river. We took that opportunity to ask the Corps to seek full funding for the chute and other habitat recovery projects. We also urged the Corps to create more variety in the depth of the chute. Additional deep-water areas would provide critical habitat for fish and other aquatic species, including the endangered pallid sturgeon.

Gen. Helmlinger’s recent comments indicate that the Corps is continuing to move towards more natural management strategies. The League was heartened by Gen. Helmlinger’s statement that past practices haven’t worked and that the Corps plans to make further changes to its management of the lower basin. Relying less on levees and dikes to control the flow of water, and instead giving the river room to roam by reconnecting it to its historic wetlands and floodplains, is a better way of reducing flood risk, increasing habitat for fish and wildlife, improving water quality, and providing more recreational opportunities. The League will continue to work with the Corps and other partners to advance projects that work with the river rather than fighting against it.

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Cover image: The Council Bend Chute.

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