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Mississippi River below the confluence

Paddlers head down the Mississippi River below its confluence with the Missouri. The St. Louis skyline can be seen in the distance. Photo by Tony Messenger. 

At the confluence, visions of history dance in your head.

Standing near the point where the nation’s two great rivers meet and become one, the Missouri and Mississippi aren’t just swollen bodies of water crashing into each other, they are ecological marvels marking the passage of time.

I was there Monday afternoon, having paddled with a group of St. Louisans guided by Mike Clark of Big Muddy Adventures. We started in the flooded Columbia Bottoms Conservation Area. Getting to the river wasn’t easy. For the second time in three years, flooding has damaged the road to the boat ramp, leaving much of it under water. But not much stops Muddy Mike, as he is called.

We paddled through wetlands, around breached levees, past a mostly underwater kiosk explaining to hikers what a “riparian corridor” is, and eventually into the wide expanse of the Missouri River, its banks bursting with the high water that is just now receding after last week’s flooding.

At confluence point, we spoke of Lewis and Clark, of Mark Twain, of Chouteau, of the Native Americans who paddled here hundreds of years before the city below the confluence would take on the name of a French king.

And we spoke of Bill Lambrecht.

In 2011, as another massive flood, this one devastating to most of the Upper Midwest, roared down the Missouri River toward St. Louis, overtopping its constricted banks from Montana to the farmlands of northern Missouri, I called Lambrecht, then a Post-Dispatch reporter in the nation’s capital, to ask a simple question.

Why is the management of the Missouri River so convoluted?

Unbeknownst to me at the time was that Lambrecht had written a book — perhaps the book — on the topic. “Big Muddy Blues,” published in 2005, tells the history of how after decades of devastating floods in the growing Midwest in the 1800s and early 1900s, the nation’s politicians set out to tame the Missouri River and instead created a series of dams and navigation channels that have in some cases made flooding worse, and that have definitely turned a national treasure into an ecological disaster.

In the 1940s, some politicians — and the Post-Dispatch editorial page — urged a more comprehensive approach, a Missouri Valley Authority that would manage the river’s great resources, and its potential for commercialization, with the entire river basin in mind.

That idea failed, and instead, every drought and every flood pits state against state, federal agency against federal agency, farmers against environmentalists.

In 2011, I tried to revive the concept of a multistate basin compact, spurred by Lambrecht’s book. I wrote an editorial series titled One River, One Problem, which advocated for a regional approach to river management, recognizing that the 1944 Pick-Sloan Plan was destined to fail from the beginning, and that in St. Louis of all places, preserving and managing the health of both the Missouri and Mississippi rivers had to become a greater priority.

At the time, unlike Lambrecht, I had never been paddling in either of the two great rivers, but a connection to the water that is our region’s lifeblood was nevertheless born.

When Lambrecht left the Post-Dispatch a few years ago, I inherited his tattered box of river research.

Tuesday morning, I took it out for the first time in a couple of years, having been inspired by a sun-splashed day on both rivers, particularly at the confluence. I wanted to reconnect to the research that for decades has recognized that our nation’s degradation of flood plains has greatly contributed to the increasingly expensive nature of Midwestern floods.

The first document in the box is a 2002 report from the National Research Council. The conclusion of the nation’s top experts on river ecology at the time was that, “Without notable changes to current Missouri River dam and reservoir operations policies, further ecological degradation is certain.”

Before Lambrecht came Rufus Terral, another former Post-Dispatch reporter who advocated in his 1947 book, “The Missouri Valley,” for a comprehensive approach to river management.

“Unless the people of the United States are willing to go on buying a large part of their nation back out of bankruptcy at irregular intervals,” he wrote, “unless they are reconciled to weakness and instability in a vast region that should be one of the principal sources of the nation’s strength, failure to develop the Missouri Valley is not to be thought of.”

We did fail, though, and, the latest St. Louis flood is just another example.

The primary reason for my paddling trip this week was to see the proposed “Pier St. Louis” development, at the far-north end of Mississippi River frontage in St. Louis, just north of Interstate 270. The owners of the property, with the unfortunate blessing of the city, the state and, apparently, the Army Corps of Engineers, have been raising the land, filling in former wetlands, all with the dream that somehow this piece of riverfront property south of the ecological treasure that is the confluence would be a great place for a gas station, a hotel, a lighthouse, parking lots and a marina.

On Monday a sole bulldozer pushed dirt as we paddled by, a water mark from just two days ago leaving a scar across the front of the property, teasing the future in which it will be inevitably underwater again.

The folly of challenging the river seemed obvious from a canoe floating down the Mighty Mississippi, on a glorious day in which the high water of a flood was more blessing than curse.

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