More than five decades ago, the Army Corps of Engineers started damming and straightening the Missouri River. Before that, the 2,315-mile-long stream had flowed free, much as Lewis and Clark found it in 1804.
A few critics thought the benefits of the vast project were overstated. A few Indian tribes complained, to no avail, about reservation land disappearing under reservoirs. Very few people worried about environmental impact.
Taming the Missouri had ample regional backing, and the Corps, then as now, had plenty of clout on Capitol Hill.
All these years later, second thoughts about the project persist. They could multiply in light of a Pentagon investigation that charges top Corps officers with misconduct and finds a persistent "bias" within the agency toward expanding its mission and budget even if that requires questionable financial and scientific analysis.
The Missouri River undertaking was an early example of mission expansion. Some of the benefits originally touted by the Corps, such as an estimated 12 million tons of barge traffic each year, never materialized. There's less than 2 million.
Today, the criticism, particularly involving environmental damage, is louder and more influential. During the past year it has culminated in a proposal by the federal Fish and Wildlife Service to vary the flow of the Missouri in order to restore, to a degree, its original cycle of high spring waters and lower summer waters. The FWS wants to save three threatened species - the pallid sturgeon, least tern, and piping plover - that depend on such flows.
That will require the cooperation of the Corps of Engineers, which runs the upstream dams that govern the Missouri's flow. To its credit, the Corps has indicated it recognizes the threat to endangered species and the need to raise springtime water levels.
The agency has good reasons for this about-face from its traditional stance. It would like to shed an anti-environment image, and is knee-deep in other restoration projects - notably a monumental plan to increase the flow of fresh water into Florida's Everglades.
At the moment, however, the Pentagon probe is highlighting the worst facets of the image of the Corp. It's being portrayed as an agency that, above all, wants to enlarge its turf - with the collaboration of regional economic interests and members of Congress always hungry for projects back home.
Those Corps allies are lined up to oppose any turnaround on the management of the river. Farmers, whose fertile bottomland could be flooded, and barge operators want no part of the seasonal flows. They have powerful backers in Congress, and they also have a campaign promise from George W. Bush that he would oppose any "spring rise" of the Missouri.
Pushing ahead with what amounts to a modest effort to undo environmental damage along the Missouri will take a strong commitment - not least from the Corps of Engineers.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society