The Missouri River is racing toward St. Louis like an unfed carnivore stalking new prey. This fierce beast stirs fear in the heartland as it rises, and it exposes a wasteland of destruction as it recedes.
Spurred on by record rains and bountiful Rocky Mountain snow, the angry, old river shed the armor clasped on it by a generation of engineers and politicians. It roared out of its stabilized banks and massive reservoirs, gobbling up soil tilled for the benefit of a nation and swallowing towns whole, robbing them of commerce.
St. Louis has not yet seen the river rise to the record flood of 1993 levels — and if levees hold and rain stays away, it won't — but the arrival this weekend of high water should send a warning signal. Up and down the Missouri River, this horrific and historic 2011 flood has lasting power that defies description.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is releasing record amounts of water — 160,000 cubic feet per second from the Gavins Point Dam, nearly enough to fill two Olympic-size swimming pools. Hundreds of thousands of acres are under water with no end in sight. Flood levels are expected to last through September.
This is one big problem.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote that "boundaries don't control rivers, people do." For centuries, the river we know as the Big Muddy has disrespected its own banks, tribal boundaries, state lines and the humongous concrete walls of almost unimaginable size we've built to control it and harness its power.
Rivers flood. That is how they feed themselves, naturally replenishing minerals that help a river spring to life. Ever since Meriwether Lewis and William Clark pushed up the untamed Missouri River in 1804, the nation's leaders have squabbled about how to limit the river's floods while distributing and preserving its bountiful resources.
The Flood of 2011 must reignite that discussion.
Big floods along the Missouri frequently have spurred intense debates, none more monumental than the one in Congress in the summer of 1944, while the nation was at war, after spring floods did damage from Sioux City, Iowa, to St. Louis. That flood, much like the more recent one in 1993, unleashed its power in the lower basin. Upriver, Montana and North Dakota thirsted for water.
This flood is different. Parts of North Dakota are under more than five feet of water. Historically heavy snow melt is dumping so much water into the basin that some of the largest reservoirs in the world, capable of holding more than 16 million acre-feet of water just for flood storage, can't keep up.
This is a national crisis. It exists, at least in part, because the basin states have allowed boundaries to get in the way of cooperation.
The time to end the squabbling is now.
The seeds for success were planted 67 years ago in perhaps the most important editorial ever written about Missouri flooding.
On May 14, 1944, the Post-Dispatch editorial board called for a unified approach to flood management in the Missouri River basin under the philosophy of "one river, one problem."
The editorial proposed a new agency, the Missouri Valley Authority, to manage the competing interests of the river — with flood control as the overriding priority. The newspaper challenged editors up and down the basin to trumpet the call of unity. It spurred a national discussion.
Yet the effort failed.
Instead, Congress passed the Pick-Sloan Plan, named after leaders in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation who devised the plan to maintain control of the river and block a new authority from being created.
Today, we renew the "one river, one problem" challenge. The concept of a new, independent authority to run the river after all this time is unrealistic. But the same confounding issues remain in conflict with each other: How does government balance the competing interests of flood control, agriculture, navigation, recreation, irrigation, wildlife management, power, water supply and water quality?
Each priority is more important to one state than another. Historically, Missouri politicians have fought for enough water to keep grain barges moving. Upper basin states have sought recreational opportunities and water to irrigate their arid lands. Meanwhile, environmentalists have argued that all the focus on commerce is killing the river that gave life to the Midwest's biggest cities.
The result is a complicated corps' Master Manual that tries to please too many interests and has left the corps open to a cacophony of allegations of mismanaging the river.
Earlier this year, for instance, farmers in southeast Missouri blamed the corps for flooding their bottom land by imploding the Birds Point Levee. That saved Cairo, Ill., and smaller towns, but allowed an angry rush of Mississippi River flood water to ravage topsoil and destroy crops. At the time, the entire Mississippi River system was stressed, especially south of the Ohio River, as the Missouri is now, and the corps was trying to avoid a doomsday scenario.
Today's Missouri River floods are directly related to that Birds Point levee decision. This spring, corps officials held back water in the full upper basin reservoirs in part to keep the Mississippi flood from raging completely out of control.
If livelihoods could be divided into lowest common denominators, the math would look like this: The corps sacrificed the rural towns and farmlands of the Dakotas, Iowa and northern Missouri to save the millions waiting helplessly downstream in Louisiana.
It's not quite that simple, but nothing about river politics is.
Attorney David Shorr, a river expert who is the former director of Missouri's Department of Natural Resources, compares dealing with Missouri River issues to a game of "Whack-a-Mole." Every time you knock down one issue, three more raise their heads.
The key to managing those issues, said Glenn Sloan, one of the authors of the Pick-Sloan plan, was to consider the "greatest good for the greatest number" of people.
As waters and anger jointly rise, that must continue to be the guiding principle to finding unified solutions to this very big problem on the nation's longest river.
We don't need to see more photos of homes submerged by a sea of sediment-filled water, or farmers standing by flooded fields or torrents of brown water rushing through yet another failed levee to know that flood control must be job one.
Ask veterans of the river wars and they all would tell you that flood control has been the goal since 1944. But each politician or farmer or environmentalist involved in the battles would supply a different answer about whether the plan actually favored navigation, flat-water recreation or preserving the once ubiquitous piping plover.
Meanwhile, the floods continue. And the corps, perhaps for the first time, is "losing control of the river," as North Dakota scholar and river expert Clay Jenkinson claims.
We in St. Louis are now playing a waiting game, keeping one eye on rising waters and another on the weather forecast, hoping that the 91 levees in the metropolitan area can keep two powerful rivers at bay.
With the corps unable to stem the flow of water, both U.S. senators from Missouri, Democrat Claire McCaskill and Republican Roy Blunt, have suggested it is time again to reexamine the corps' Master Manual, to try to improve on the plan for managing the Missouri River.
We agree. The last major review of the master plan occurred after a period of extended drought. Now there has been an epic flood to add to the body of knowledge.
The first step of any review must be for all of the key players to make a simple declaration. Each state and economic interest has swirled its hands in the muddy waters of river politics. The time for promoting narrow interests to the detriment of the greater good of the Missouri River basin is over.
As our predecessors wrote in 1944, "this newspaper confesses an error of the past — a preoccupation with the interests of its own section."
As that editorial did before, we now issue a call to action, a rallying cry for good men and women up and down the river to put aside parochial interests for the sake of saving our river and our communities from the destruction we all have had a hand in creating.
Now is the time to listen to the sage advice of North Dakota tribal leader Tex Hall, who simply stated to the Post-Dispatch's Bill Lambrecht, for his 2005 book "Big Muddy Blues," what must be done:
"We need to get everyone in the room, lock the door, and not come out until we balance the interests of the upstream states, the downstream states, and Mother Earth."
Now is that time to come together and determine a better, safer future.
Monday: If flood control comes first, how do we balance the interests?