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Missouri River Navigation: Finding Common Ground

March 1, 2013

The following story was written by a University of Missouri student as part of the 2012 Sonja Hillgren/Farm Journal Ag Journalism Field Reporting Institute. Learn more.

By Darren Orf

On a grassy slope outside Mound City, Mo., scientists and journalists stand on common ground and stare over an expanse of the Missouri River flood plain. Robert Jacobson, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, sweeps his hand across the landscape and describes the prehistoric journey of water and sediment from glaciers that formed the river below.

Jacobson Forbes (2)

Robert Jacobson, chief research hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey River Studies Branch
in Columbia, Mo.

Jacobson’s words create an image, as if the sun’s revolution races in reverse to an era when the unbridled Missouri stretched a mile wide.

Today, the scene is no longer so idyllic. The river is much narrower — channelized and confined by controlled banks lined with a long string of cottonwoods. River management is a hotbed of politics and frustration. One area of contention: nature vs. navigation.

Toting sand, gravel or commercial products, barge traffic appears to be suffering from declining interest and unreliable channels. Navigation’s apparently weakening viability creates an uncertain future of Missouri River management.

"You have to filter out the fiction and the myth," says Jud Kneuvean, chief of the Emergency Management Branch of the Army Corps of Engineers Kansas City District. "It’s a very divisive issue within the basin."

Kneuvean Bruer

Jud Kneuvean, chief of the Emergency Management Branch of
the Army Corps of Engineers Kansas City District. Photo: Amy Bruer

In 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark illustrated a river with meandering channels, numerous sandbars and brush stretching for miles.

The basin changed dramatically in the 20th century. The Army Corps of Engineers reshaped the river for commercial navigation. The 735-mile stretch between Sioux City, Iowa, and St. Louis became a nine-foot-deep, 300-foot-wide channel.

Navigation reached its economic peak in 1977. By 2011, barges only transported an estimated tonnage value of $300 million, which is about one-fourth of the 1977 value, according to the Corps.

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