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Government, Politics & Issues

Lawmakers slash Missouri River ecosystem plans in name of flood control

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 19, 2011 - WASHINGTON - In the wake of this summer's severe flooding, members of Congress from Missouri have been mounting what appears to be a systematic effort to slash studies and efforts that aim to restore the ecosystems along the now-swollen Missouri River -- even though many analysts feel that such restoration can help lessen future flooding.

Last week, U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth -- arguing that "it is preposterous to think that environmental projects are more important than the protection of human life" -- convinced the U.S. House to approve his amendment to cut funding for the Missouri River Ecosystem Restoration Plan, or MR-ERP.

A few days earlier, Rep. Sam Graves, R-Tarkio -- saying that "we spend too much to protect fish at the expense of people" -- added an amendment to the same bill that would transfer $1 million from the related Missouri River Recovery Program to an Army Corps of Engineers account to be used to maintain levees. The same legislation added an extra $1 billion for the Corps to repair levees and other flood-control systems nationwide.

(The Senate has not yet taken up the bill to which these amendments were added.)

In a letter sent this month to the head of the Corps' Kansas City district, Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst contended that "the Missouri River has been hijacked by those who believe recreation and endangered species are more important than protecting lives and property."

The assault on longstanding efforts to restore Big Muddy's ecosystem -- devastated by decades of structural flood-control changes that some experts contend have raised river levels and worsened some floods -- has led to pushback from environmental groups, academics and some government river experts.

"We can develop win-win solutions that can help reduce the risks of flooding, benefit people in the floodplain and, at the same time, benefit wildlife and the ecosystem," said Wayne Nelson-Stastny, a program manager who helps coordinate the MR-ERP study for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). He told the Beacon that the study involves efforts to find sustainable ways to improve flood control on the Missouri.

Many environmental and flood-plain management groups contend that building higher levees that straightjacket the river can worsen floods; they argue for solutions that allow the river to flood some bottomlands, including wildlife refuges and wetlands.

"Millions of acres of farmland and an estimated $18 billion of residential and other property are subject to flooding along the Missouri River," said Andrew Fahlund, vice president for conservation of American Rivers, an environmental group that supports better flood-plain management.

Instead of rebuilding old levees and returning to failed river-management strategies, Fahlund told the Beacon, "the record breaking flooding along America's longest river [with a basin] covering one-sixth of the United States demands flood-control efforts that move people out of harm's way, sets levees back allowing more room for rivers to roam."

Among the academic experts who question the Corps' techniques and agree with the need for more wetlands is Robert Criss, a professor in Washington University's earth sciences department and author of "At the Confluence: Rivers, Floods and Water Quality in the St. Louis Region."

Calling the initiatives to defund Missouri River studies "absolutely absurd," Criss said lawmakers were using the flood "as an excuse to scale back environmental protections. It's more of the same of our Congress doing its darndest to reward failure" of existing flood-control systems that rely too much on levees.

Kathleen Logan Smith, executive director of the St. Louis-based Missouri Coalition for the Environment, told the Beacon on Tuesday that it is "disingenuous" for members of Congress to de-fund river studies in the name of flood control when such studies may offer sustainable -- and less expensive -- solutions to limit the impact of future floods.

"We don't have the money to continue to build and build levees and other structures to contain rivers" [like the Missouri], Smith said, adding that "it's cheaper and more practical to give the rivers more space."

While Smith agrees that "we do need to find ways to protect our farmland," she also contends that "we also need to allow some floodplains to behave like floodplains. That's why we need to find middle ground."

Farmers Versus River Restoration?

The Missouri River Ecosystem Restoration Plan is a long-term study led by the Corps and the Fish and Wildlife Service, that is required by law to produce a plan to guide the Corps' mitigation, restoration, and recovery efforts for the Missouri River for the next three to five decades.

The study is relatively inexpensive, advocates say -- slated to receive about $4 million of the $72 million that was requested for next year's budget for the wider Missouri River Recovery Program, which coordinates various efforts aimed at restoring the river's ecosystem.

Nelson-Stastny of the FWS told the Beacon that the Missouri River study is likely to take about a decade because "you're talking about a river that is 2,300 miles long and (has) a huge number of stakeholders." He said they hope to find a way to recover the river ecosystem "in harmony with the region's social, cultural and economic interests, which includes flood control. . . . There are only so many structural things you can do to contain floods. We have to look at ways that are more sustainable."

Luetkemeyer, in his House remarks opposing the study, said the study was duplicative -- "one of no fewer than 70 environmental and ecological studies focused on the Missouri River. The people who have to foot the bill for these studies and projects, many of which take years to complete and are ultimately inconclusive, are the very people who are at risk of losing their farms, their businesses, their homes, and even their lives today."

He said funding for the Missouri River Recovery Program "dwarfs the insufficient $6.1 million that was requested for an entire [Corps] operations and maintenance fund that supports the area covering the entire region from Sioux City to the mouth of the Missouri in St. Louis." However, he did not mention that the Corps can repair levees from other accounts and that the Energy and Water Appropriations bill -- which he amended -- included an extra $1 billion for Corps levee and flood-structure repairs.

Opposing Luetkemeyer's amendment was Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., the top Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water development. He said the 2007 water resources act, approved with bipartisan support, authorized the Corps to undertake the Missouri River Ecosystem Restoration Plan and develop the Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee to "develop a shared vision and comprehensive plan for the restoration of the Missouri River ecosystem."

By barring the Corps from spending any of its 2012 funding on the study, he said, Luetkemeyer's measure would delay the study, incur additional start-up expenses later and lead to "erosion of trust of the delicate partnership in this basin. There also could be legal implications associated with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) if funding were prohibited for this study in the longer term."

Visclosky, saying that the study is required as part of the act's Missouri River Fish and Wildlife Recovery Project, warned that Luetkemeyer's amendment could hurt river management because it "places the Army Corps in jeopardy of not being in compliance with the [NEPA], which could also adversely affect their operation of the dams on the waterways."

Backing her fellow Missourian's measure was Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Harrisonville, who said that flood control, agriculture and navigation should be the priorities in managing the river. "While preserving a habitat for the pallid sturgeon, the piping plover and the least tern is important, we cannot allow these narrow interests to take precedence over the lives and activities of farmers, businesses, and residents on or near the river."

Going a bit further was Hurst of the Missouri Farm Bureau, who told the Corps in his letter that "the federal government has ignored the fact the Missouri River System was designed to provide flood protection." In a recent essay for the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Hurst contended that "the Big Muddy has been a dream of environmentalists since the Great Flood of 1993, and the Fish and Wildlife Service can hardly let the livelihoods of a few farm families stand in the way of swamps as far as the eye can see." He blamed such policies on a "slice of the populace that misses malaria and longs to return to the primordial ooze."

Looking to the past -- and future

But the lessons of the 1993 flood -- which caused far more damage in Missouri than this summer's deluge -- were that structural flood-control systems such as levees need to be supplemented by non-structural efforts such as floodplain restrictions and expanding wetlands, according to river engineer Gerald E. Galloway.

Galloway led the White House-appointed panel that drew lessons from the 1993 flood, which caused about $15 billion in damages, destroyed 100,000 homes and inundated 6.6 million acres along the Missouri and upper Mississippi Rivers -- including devastating losses in the St. Louis region. That report, "Sharing the Challenge: Floodplain Management into the 21st Century" called for a comprehensive approach to "flood damage reduction" -- as opposed to strict flood control -- that would deploy all available tools, both structural (such as levees and dams) and non-structural (such as wetlands and floodplain restrictions).

Galloway told the Beacon that the lesson of this summer's flood should be that "we need to try to put together another great plan for the Missouri -- as was done in the past -- and do it in a high-tech 21st-century manner."

In an unprecedented meeting last week all 14 U.S. senators representing Missouri River states met to try to find some common ground -- with a focus on future flood control.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said no grand compromise emerged from the initial meeting of the Missouri River Working Group but said the lawmakers agreed that "we must work toward a river system that is focused on flood control and the protection of people and property."

But that veneer of river cooperation seemed in conflict with another amendment that Luetkemeyer added to the Energy and Water bill last week that bars funding for the Missouri River Authorized Purposes Study (MRAPS), which had been in the midst of reviewing the priorities for managing the Missouri River. Congress had approved a similar measure earlier this year, supported by Missouri lawmakers who worried that Upper Basin states were trying to use the study to make their needs, including recreation, more important priorities. Luetkemeyer contended that MRAPS was redundant because it followed a 17-year, $35 million study completed seven years ago.

Are efforts to improve flood control and restore the river's ecosystem mutually exclusive? Luetkemeyer argued that "too much emphasis has been placed on recreation, habitat restoration and compliance with the Endangered Species Act." Saying that "Congress has a duty to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely," he contended that river navigation and commerce were more important priorities in Missouri.

But Fahlund of American Rivers questioned that assessment. "Congress' own General Accounting Office (GAO) found that sand and gravel accounted for 84 percent of total tonnage shipped by barge on the Missouri between 1994 and 2006 and that more than half of the barge traffic traveled one mile or less," he said in a statement to the Beacon. "If members of Congress want to go after wasteful spending and management on the Missouri River, they should look there."

Fahlund asserts that recreation along the Missouri River offers great potential -- such as the Big Muddy National Wildlife Refuge, which includes nearly 17,000 acres in about a dozen wildlife refuges along the Missouri River between St. Louis and Kansas City.

Nelson-Stastny of the FWS agrees that such wildlife refuges can attract ecotourism, but also says that such areas -- many of which are now flooded -- also help control flood levels when they are inundated.

"The Corps and the Fish and Wildlife Service are working together very closely on the ecosystem restoration plan," he said. "We're looking at how to tie together all the multitude of programs" to address the question: "How can you develop a system-wide approaching to managing this river system?"

He said he hopes that, "much as this year's flood is bringing people together, this study is also bringing people together to discuss important issues."

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