Missouri River Navigation: Finding Common Ground

February 28, 2013 11:00 PM

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.

For some Missouri River stakeholders these numbers don’t add up, and relations among resource managers, environmentalists, navigators and government officials can be abrasive.

Conservation and navigation, primarily barge traffic, are often at odds. The National Research Council identifies the Corps’ responsibility of maintaining navigation and conservation as the most polarizing issue on the Missouri.

River politics is a collage of varying points of view. "It depends on who you talk to" is a common phrase to hear when asking questions about river management.

Navigation specifically faces a long list of challenges. Kneuvean says a shorter shipping season, competition for grain and shipper apathy are all contributors to barge traffic’s steady decline, but port captains and engineers face a bigger problem.

"People want predictability," Kneuvean says. "Because of the way water flows into the basin, over time there’s been less reliability."

For waterway operators, reliability is key. Port Captain Lester Cruse has worked on the Missouri for 11 years. The river’s unreliable channel is the biggest detriment to the navigation industry, he says.

"If you just have three areas that are only seven or eight feet deep, then the whole river might as well be that deep," Cruse says. "These areas we’ve been having problems with are because of (organizations) making habitat."

Cruse mentions a depth problem at one part of the river, mile 178, which marks the beginning of the Overton Bottoms, a conservation area near Columbia focused on restoring natural habitat. These areas often have shallower channels, which makes navigation more difficult, he says.

The navigation channel is only one part of river management’s continuous tug-o-war, and environmentalists have no plans to stop tugging.

A healthy ecosystem is the difference between a river and a drainage ditch, scientists say. The disappearance of an animal can cause consequences that ripple throughout the environment, according to several studies.

Ripples from decades of construction and navigation have spread throughout the basin. The Missouri River Recovery Program states that 3 million acres of natural habitat has been altered and 51 of 67 native species are now rated uncommon or decreasing.

Kasey Whiteman, a resource staff scientist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, hopes to keep these ripples from growing.

Whiteman suggests that relaxing some "pinch points" along the Missouri, particularly north of Kansas City, would help both navigation and the environment by relieving flow pressure.

"The rivers were the lifeblood of the Midwest," Whiteman says. "We need to restore some semblance of the river’s natural processes."

Whiteman is used to facing the fiery conversation that can surround Missouri River management.

"Anytime you work in wildlife and fisheries, you realize that 90 percent of your job is people management and social management," Whiteman says. "What you do with fish and wildlife has implications on the economic and social part of things."

Conservation and navigation will likely remain in contention. Even without barge traffic, Kneuvean says navigation would still be maintained on the Missouri because of its relationship with other important river functions, such as flood control, irrigation and hydropower.

Across from the grassy slope, the Missouri River will remain restricted behind the long string of cottonwoods. But Jacobson sees a hopeful, collaborative future for navigation and conservation.

"That’s where things are heading now, and they’re heading there while maintaining navigation." Jacobson says. "There is common ground."


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