Rethinking a river
With multiple levees washed out from the last major flood, the 2,300 mile Missouri River is at a crossroads.
SPANISH LAKE, MO.
When Tom Leifield steps onto the brand-new parking lot of Missouri's youngest state park, he knows he has a winner.Skip to next paragraph
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Once finished, the Columbia Bottom site will draw people from miles around, because this is the point where the Missouri River ends its 2,300-mile journey and flows into the mighty Mississippi. So why is Mr. Leifield, the park manager, thinking about removing the levee and letting the place flood regularly?
"We know [the park] is going to attract a lot of people, so that's going to require roads, parking lots, facilities," he says. "But we also know from a natural-resources point of view that we sort of owe it to the river to set the levee back. So we are torn."
It's a dilemma shared all along the lower Missouri. Reshaped and shored up 50 years ago, the river was engineered as a barge channel. Now, an unlikely mix of river users is coming together to push back the clock and return America's second-largest river to a more natural state.
A river, especially one as long and diverse as the Missouri, winds through so many lives and businesses that complete compromise looks a long way off. Even so, the environmental consensus already achieved here on the Midwestern plains bodes well for rivers around the country.
"Reconnecting rivers with their flood plains is an issue that's generic in the United States," says Ray Arvidson, professor of earth and planetary sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. "If you can do it on the Missouri, you can do it practically anywhere else."
Three faces of a river
Actually, the Missouri presents three faces to the world as it wends its way through eight states with enough capacity to flood four of them ankle-deep in water. From its start at Three Forks in western Montana, the river is wild and natural, relatively untouched except for a few dams and sportsmen who come for some of the best trout fishing in the country. At Fort Peck in the eastern part of the state, the river becomes a huge reservoir, held back by the first of six federal dams, which pump out hydroelectric power. After the last federal dam at Yankton, S.D., the river flows free again until Sioux City, Iowa, where it becomes a channel carrying barges to and from the Mississippi River.
The system works well from an engineering perspective. The dams produce cheap electricity, tame spring floods, and keep the barge channel open during the dry summer and fall when river levels would drop. Cities draw their water from it. Industry cools its factories with it. On its manmade lakes, fishermen float their boats.
In environmental terms, however, the Missouri is becoming a disaster. One-fifth of the river's native fish and wildlife species are on federal and state watch lists. Two shorebirds (the least tern and piping plover) and one fish (the pallid sturgeon) have declined so much that the federal government considers them endangered.
"For the last 50 years, the Missouri's been managed to keep navigation on the river," says Chad Smith, regional representative for American Rivers, a conservation group based in Washington, D.C. "And if we continue that, there's going to be species that become extinct.... It's time to change that."
Strangely enough, three forces are converging to force that change: a natural disaster, a federal law, and a historical anniversary. A decade ago, the Missouri River basin entered a prolonged drought. As the water dwindled, diverse interests began to fight over the remaining supply.
Who gets the water?