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.

Now it appears that the river will be the center of litigation � perhaps for years to come.

That�s another problem, in our view. Lawsuits are never a quick, effective solution to anything. We can easily imagination the condition of the Missouri only growing worse as court action drags on and on.

American Rivers, a conservation group, could well be doing the suing if the Corps of Engineers, as expected, stops short of revising river management in ways that will change releases from the six main-stem dams on the Missouri to mimic the spring-summer pattern of the old river.

American Rivers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a panel of independent scientists believe such changes are needed to guarantee the survival of certain native fish and birds in and along the Missouri.

The corps was leaning toward that philosophy during the waning years of the Clinton administration but has moved back toward commercial interests under President Bush.

The corps almost certainly will end up in court no matter which alternative it selects in revising the Missouri River Master Water Control Manual.

The Master Manual, as it�s called by friends and foes, has been in place since 1960 as the overall set of guidelines to shape river management as applied by the corps.

Two years ago, 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 to address the siltation of the Missouri in South Dakota and the threat to Indian cultural and historic sites that border the river.

According to Daschle, 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.

But 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, 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, attempts to cure some of the Missouri�s problems legislatively have, just like the river, flowed uneasily. Downstream states are worried that any changes to the river could ultimately effect barge traffic in Missouri.

We agree with our governor. It�s time 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 that studies have shown that the economic impact of barge traffic on the Missouri is shrinking. 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.

It�s unfortunate that the process of reforming river management will likely be brought to a conclusion through continued court action. 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.

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