Troubles Plague the Mighty Missouri

Paul Lepisto
Flooded area along the Missouri River - credit U.S. Air Force Tech Sgt Oscar Sanchez

The nation’s arteries. That’s one way to describe America’s rivers. Just as arteries circulate vital blood and oxygen through our bodies, our streams, rivers and wetlands transport life-sustaining water throughout the country. Like a damaged circulatory system, many of our rivers now suffer from the effects of dams and channelization that dramatically alter their natural flow. And because of poor management of the land around our rivers, they also suffer from many forms of pollution, sedimentation, invasive plants and animals, trash and other unnatural shocks that have impoverished these tarnished waterways.

This problem isn’t new. Rivers in America have been facing serious threats for more than a century. River pollution was a prime motivator for the 54 anglers who founded the Izaak Walton League of America in 1922, and the League has worked tirelessly to improve water quality in each of its 99 years since, through conservation stewardship and advocacy.

Rivers in Trouble

Heavy industrial pollution infamously caused Ohio’s Cuyahoga River to catch fire several times in the 1960s. Mounting concern and pressure on lawmakers from the League and other groups finally prompted Congress to pass (and then override President Nixon’s veto of) the Clean Water Act in 1972.

Since 1989, the advocacy group American Rivers has released an annual “Most Endangered Rivers” list. The 10 rivers on the 2021 list were selected because each stands at a critical crossroad or tipping point—whether a major decision about the river’s fate that the public can influence or a major impact on the health of people or fish and wildlife along the river. All these factors are compounded by climate change and development disturbances along the lands near our rivers that should be filtering and cleaning water as it flows into these watersheds.

This year’s American Rivers list includes three waterways that have concerned the Izaak Walton League for decades. The lower Missouri River (which flows through Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri) ranked as the nation’s second most endangered due to poor flood management and the effects of climate change. Minnesota’s Boundary Waters ranked third because of the threat of a proposed sulfide-ore copper mine upstream of this pristine wilderness area. And the Raccoon River in central Iowa ranked ninth owing to agricultural pollution from factory farms and the lax enforcement of clean water rules.

Our Most-Altered River

From Montana to Missouri, America’s longest river flows more than 2,340 miles across the nation. The Missouri River drains a watershed that encompasses more than 529,000 square miles—one-sixth of the lower 48 states. The river was considered the “Gateway to the West” as it was a major highway for European migration. For eons, the Missouri was a dynamic, wide, meandering river that spread out over its rich floodplain each year.

Unfortunately, the Missouri is now the nation’s most-altered river. The 1944 Flood Control Act authorized construction of five massive dams in the upper basin, after Fort Peck Dam in Montana had already been constructed. The Act also authorized completion of the Bank Stabilization and Navigation Project (BSNP) and an extensive levee system on the lower third of the river. While the 1944 legislation stipulated that the lower river should not be narrower than 3,000 feet, some areas of the river have been pinched to a width of just 600 feet.

Alterations made to this mighty river were designed to fulfill eight authorized but conflicting purposes: flood control, navigation, irrigation, hydropower, water supply, water quality, recreation and fish and wildlife. When the Act was signed, President Roosevelt acknowledged that in most years there would not be enough water in the river to accomplish the aims of all the purposes.

Missouri River basin mapThe lower Missouri River, flowing through Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri, ranks as the nation's second most endangered due to poor flood management and the effects of climate change. (Click image for larger version.)The lower Missouri, through Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska, is also tightly confined by hundreds of miles of federal and private levees that disconnect the river from its natural, historic floodplain. The BSNP shortened the river by more than 120 miles. As a result, the river lost half a million acres of its natural features—side channels, chutes, shallow and slack water areas, sandbars, islands and connected wetlands.

This loss of these riverine features has exacerbated flooding in areas of the lower basin. The tightly constricted BSNP cannot handle the river’s high flows. Frequent flooding has brought heartbreaking damage to homes, farms, businesses, and other critical infrastructure. In 2019, more than 850 miles of levees in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska were overtopped or heavily damaged, resulting in more than $2 billion in repair costs. Levees are frequently breached, often in the same locations.

Because of the alterations to the Missouri, communities are frequently flooded, farmers continue to lose crops and taxpayers are repeatedly stuck with the huge bill to rebuild levees. The changes have caused the loss of vital habitat for animal species, triggering the federal endangered species listing for the pallid sturgeon and the piping plover. The Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing a possible Endangered Species Act listing of the sicklefin and sturgeon chub, two of 51 native fish now listed as rare or declining on the Missouri. Nearly every year the lower Missouri River needs more room to accommodate flood events and high flows. It was once thought the dams and levee system would “control” flooding in the lower basin. But with today’s frequent extreme weather events, even the staunchest supporters of this outdated system are realizing the Missouri River needs much more capacity to handle the flood conditions.

This problem is not going away. Many climate models predict frequent major flooding across regions in the Midwest.

What’s Needed Now

State and local officials must rethink rather than just rebuild existing levee systems and reconsider development in the river’s historic floodplain, since that puts people and infrastructure at risk. Management of the Missouri River must include additional capacity to handle the water volume in years with high runoff. In some frequently flooded areas, levee setbacks have been constructed, or are being considered. The setbacks give the water more room to spread out and slow down.

Following the devastating 2019 flood, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri joined the Corps of Engineers in a study called Planning Assistance to States (PAS). This three-year effort will examine ways to prevent persistent flooding and implement methods, like levee setbacks, that increase flood protection in the lower basin. The PAS effort needs to be fully funded so the study can be completed and measures to prevent future economic loss and flood damage can be implemented.

The Izaak Walton League urges you to contact your members of Congress and request their support for the full $30.6 million in funding for the Missouri River Recovery Program. Restoration and mitigation efforts will benefit all fish and wildlife, improve water quality, and increase recreational opportunities for families in the basin.

Full funding is also needed to complete and enact recommendations from the lower Missouri Planning Assistance to States study. This would support development and implementation of measures to prevent further lower basin flood damage.

Take action now.

League Fights for Missouri River Recovery

Additional funding is also urgently needed for the Missouri River Recovery Program (MRRP) and for BSNP’s Fish and Wildlife Mitigation Project. MRRP seeks to restore the river’s habitat for the two listed endangered species. The mitigation project is authorized to restore a portion of more than a million acres of riverine habitat lost to the construction and ongoing operation of BSNP in the lower basin and the six reservoirs in the upper basin.

Due to lack of funding, these two efforts have stalled. The administration’s MRRP budget request was only a bit over $8 million for the next fiscal year. Inadequate funding is causing the Corps to fall farther and farther behind established habitat and species-recovery goals.

This spring, the Izaak Walton League again led an effort urging Congress to fully fund MRRP. We authored a funding request letter and enlisted more than 80 partners, including the League divisions and chapters in Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota, to sign on. We urged Congress to fund MRRP to the Corps’ budget request of $30.6 million in the fiscal year 2022 budget process. At press time we don’t know what the final MRRP appropriation will be.

Policies Lawmakers Must Adopt

Lower basin states, including local entities where major flooding has occurred, must commit to non-structural solutions including:

  • Additional levee setbacks that give the river more room
  • Ordinances that prevent additional development in the Missouri River floodplain
  • Funding for infrastructure relocation and flood mitigation in flood-prone areas

Throughout the U.S., elected officials need to know that people care about the health of our critical waterways like the Missouri. Recovery, flood mitigation and conservation projects will help ensure the health of our rivers.

America's Most Endangered Rivers, 2021

The annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers reports have helped spur many successes—removing outdated dams, protecting rivers with Wild and Scenic designations or preventing harmful development and pollution. The full 2021 list of troubled waters and why they were listed is below.

The Izaak Walton League of America has worked to improve the nation’s water quality since 1922. In addition to the Missouri River, the League has also focused on two other rivers listed in American Rivers’ 2021 report: the Boundary Waters region in northern Minnesota (number three on the list) and the Raccoon River in Iowa (number nine on the list).

1: Snake River (Idaho, Wash., Ore.)
Threat: Four federal dams on the lower Snake River

2: Lower Missouri River (Mo., Iowa, Neb., Kansas)
Threat: Outdated river management

3: Boundary Waters (Minn.)
Threat: Sulfide-ore copper mining

4: South River (Ga.)
Threat: Pollution due to lax enforcement

5: Pecos River (N.M.)
Threat: Pollution from proposed hardrock mining

6: Tar Creek (Okla.)
Threat: Pollution from Tar Creek Superfund Site

7: McCloud River (Calif.)
Threat: Raising of Shasta Dam

8: Ipswich River (Mass.)
Threat: Excessive water withdrawals

9: Raccoon River (Iowa)
Threat: Pollution from industrial agriculture and factory farming

10: Turkey Creek (Miss.)
Threat: Two major developments

This article was excerpted from “Outdoor America” 2021 issue #3. Want more articles like this? Join the League and get four issues of our award-winning magazine every year.

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Top photo: A flooded area along the Missouri River. Photo credits: U.S. Air Force Tech Sgt Oscar Sanchez.

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