Between the Lines

Between the Lines By David Lias The Mighty Mo isn't so mighty any more.

And the sad thing is, Congress could, and should be helping the situation. Instead, it's only complicating the river's problems � problems that particularly hit close to home.

People who live in the Springfield area, for example, once were able to enjoy all the benefits of living near the shores of Lewis and Clark Lake.

But they don't really live near a lake any longer.

Five million tons of silt a year flow into the tail end of Lewis and Clark Lake from the Niobrara River, which drains northern Nebraska and enters the Missouri River a few miles upstream from Springfield.

The sediment is clogging the upper end of South Dakota's smallest Missouri River reservoir, creating a sprawling marsh.

Our state's congressional delegation had hoped Congress would help. Last month, Sen. Tom Daschle urged his colleagues in the U.S. Senate to pass the Water Resources Development Act of 2000 (WRDA). This legislation included a section incorporating elements of the Missouri River Restoration Act.

Daschle introduced this legislation last May to address the siltation of the Missouri in South Dakota and the threat to Indian cultural and historic sites that border the river.

As Daschle pointed out on the floor of the Senate last month, the Missouri River needs Congress' help because we've fooled a bit with Mother Nature. We built a series of dams on the Missouri that have forever changed its flow.

There's no question that these federal dams have been of great benefit to our society the last 50 years. The dams have provided affordable electricity for millions of Americans and prevented billions of dollars of damage to downstream states by preventing flooding. They have also created an economically important recreation industry in South Dakota.

However, one of the consequences of the dams is that they have virtually eliminated the ability of the Missouri River to carry sediment downstream. Before the dams, the Missouri was known as the Big Muddy because of the heavy sediment load it carried. Today, that sediment is deposited on the river bottom in South Dakota, and significant build-ups have occurred where tributaries like the Bad River, White River and Niobrara River empty into the Missouri.

Boats that used to sail from Yankton to Springfield can no longer navigate the channel, eroding the area's economy. This problem will only grow worse. According to the Corps of Engineers, in less than 75 years Lewis and Clark lake will fill entirely with sediment, ending the ability of the reservoir to provide flood control and seriously threatening the economies of Yankton and Vermillion.

Ironically, Daschle's attempts to cure some of the Missouri's problems legislatively on Capitol Hill have, just like the river, flowed uneasily. They were hampered by a rider attached to the Energy and Water appropriations bill four years ago by Republican Sen. Christopher Bond of Missouri.

Bond, worried that any changes to the river could ultimately effect barge traffic in Missouri and other southern states, attached the rider to stop the U.S. Corps of Engineers from implementing changes in its 40-year-old Master Manual for the Missouri River.

As Sen. Tim Johnson noted Oct. 2, the time has come for the management of the Missouri River to reflect the current economic realities of a $90 million annual recreational impact upstream versus a $7 million annual navigation impact downstream.

It's also important to note, as farmers are well into this fall's harvest here, that studies have shown that the economic impact of barge traffic on the Missouri amounts to somewhere between $5 million and $7 million. The amount of commerce shipped on the river is both low and declining. For example, the amount of corn, wheat and soybeans shipped on the river has declined from 1,400 thousand tons in 1979 to less than 400 thousand tons each year from 1992 through 1996. This represents less than one quarter of one percent of the quantity of these grains produced in Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri.

Studies also show that instead of moving grain by barge to St. Louis where it ultimately will be shipped down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, it is likely more cost effective to move grain by truck or rail to Illinois, load it on barges, and send it down the Mississippi.

President Clinton did the right thing by recently vetoing Energy and Water appropriations bill. The veto was aimed at eliminating Bond's rider that had placed a stranglehold on Missouri River reforms.

On Oct. 2, 37 senators voted against the Energy and Water appropriations bill, providing more than enough support for the veto and for efforts to strip the rider from the legislation. It's unfortunate that this process of reforming river management had to be brought to a standstill. Common sense would dictate that management of the river eventually will have to change, despite what southern states believe, to stop the channel from becoming a large swamp here up north.

The much needed update in the management of the river will help South Dakota recreation interests by keeping more water in the four Missouri River reservoirs in the state during the summer months and provide a healthier river.

When the bill is finally enacted, after the rider is removed, it will include $60 million for South Dakota water projects.

Unless, of course, the measure faces other hurdles on Capitol Hill that will hamper the flows of both the revenue and the waters of the Mighty Mo.

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