This morning, a group of industry and government officials will stand on a barge moored near the foot of Arsenal Street south of downtown St. Louis.
They’ll point to the low water levels in the Mississippi River. They’ll lament the drought, and the fact that the reduced flow of water from both the Missouri River and the upper basin of the Mississippi makes it likely that barges carrying grain, coal and other products, mostly agricultural, will have to be lighter in the winter months to navigate shallow waters. Some barge traffic might be stopped altogether.
They’ll ask the Army Corps of Engineers to release more water from the Gavins Point Dam, near Yankton, S.D., in the Missouri’s upper basin, to increase the flow in the Mississippi at St. Louis. The corps will say no. Its hands are tied.
The master manual that directs the corps’ management of the Missouri River doesn’t allow it to make decisions based on the needs of the Mississippi River. This despite the fact that about 60 percent of the water flow in the middle Mississippi comes directly from the Missouri.
Sadly, the very important effort to focus attention on the plight of the river will fall mostly on deaf ears. Things might be different if the general who commands the corps were caught in a salacious love triangle.
For too long now, the plight of the nation’s river systems has been ignored. Locks and dams aren’t sexy. Floods are seen as anomalies. They’re awful. Devastating. They cost all of us billions of dollars. But, let’s face it, when the upper Missouri River basin was suffering through perhaps its worst flood in history a year ago, most of us noticed the high water as we crossed the bridges on our morning commutes and left it at that. The flood didn’t get bad enough to threaten St. Louis.
One year later, drought had created opposite problems. Last year, Missouri officials wanted the water held back. Now they want it released. And each time, politicians in the Dakotas and Montana fight back with a polar-opposite message.
So what to do?
It’s past time to pay attention to the rivers. It’s time for the river-state politicians, all of them, up and down the Missouri and Mississippi basins, to correct the horrible public policy that treats what is actually one living ecosystem as a series of regional problems managed parochially.
When a devastating surge of angry Missouri River water rushed toward its confluence with the Mississippi River last summer, when the Mississippi already was swollen by record rains in its upper basin, the decision to blast a hole in Birds Point Levee wasn’t about one river or the other. It wasn’t just about saving a struggling river city, or flooding farmland. It was about managing the system. About saving towns and cities upstream and downstream. It was about creating one economic catastrophe to avert another.
That is the ultimate conundrum with river management in this country. The system is set up to react, not manage. Parochial politics give Gov. Jay Nixon of Missouri no choice but to join with the agricultural industry in trying to keep the waters flowing in the winter. The state’s economy relies heavily on the flow of agricultural goods up and down the Mississippi. Shifting those goods to roads and rail will cost all of us money.
But Mr. Nixon, along with Missouri’s U.S. senators, Democrat Claire McCaskill and Republican Roy Blunt, should remember the flood of 2011. Then they pushed Congress to figure out a long-term solution to the various conflicting special interests demanding that the rivers bend to their will.
They should start with this: Managing the Missouri and Mississippi rivers as separate entities ignores science. It ignores reality. Policies established in the 1940s didn’t make sense then. They make less sense now, in a world where climate change is increasing the frequency of disasters.
Until Congress commits to a new river management plan that treats the entire Missouri and Mississippi river basins as one system, the cycles will continue: Droughts and flood, conflict between environmental needs and economic ones. Regional gridlock will continue. Taxpayers will be left in constant disaster mode, throwing good money after bad, never fixing the real problem.
The culprit here isn’t Mother Nature. It’s not environmentalists or industrialists. It’s not the corps. It’s Congress. Until Congress gives a higher priority to the nation’s great rivers, and acts as referee among competing interests, all of us will pay.