De-authorizing navigation on the Missouri River would do wonders to ensure a robust water supply for irrigation and recreation in the Midwest—although at a cost to certain interest groups, many of them downstream.

Some call for de-authorizing navigation to relieve restrictions on water for crops.
Photo: Harry Weddington, Omaha District, USACE
Some call for de-authorizing navigation to relieve restrictions on water for crops.
Photo: Harry Weddington, Omaha District, USACE
Spillway is at Gavins Point Dam, near Yankton, S.D.

Every option is on the table as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers launches a study to challenge whether the “eight purposes” enshrined in a 66-year-old federal act that governs water management policy on the Missouri River are still valid and, if necessary, how those priorities should be changed.

It is not a hypothetical debate.

Despite present fears of flooding in the Missouri River Basin and all points south in the Mississippi River watershed, the study was prompted by a 10-year drought on the Missouri and a significant depletion of water reserves. That caused problems for recreation and irrigation, says Paul Johnston, a public-affairs spokesman with the Corps’ Omaha District. That, in turn, led to calls by interests groups in Montana and the Dakotas to de-authorize navigation on the Missouri so the water could be diverted to other uses.

U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) is the primary author of the legislation that authorized the study. He also chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee for water and the environment, which oversees the Corps’ budget. Dorgan, together with U.S. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and U.S. Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.), says decreased commercial interests are disproportionately weighted against the water and recreational needs of upstream communities.

The only way to de-authorize navigation is to challenge the premises of the controlling legislation, the Flood Control Act of 1944. In response to Dorgan’s proposal, Congress authorized a five-year study to do just that. The clock started ticking in October.

Stakeholders are girding for battle. The study must cover eight categories of interest: flood control, hydropower, water supply, irrigation, navigation, recreation, water quality, and fish and wildlife concerns.

The study is well under way, and the exchanges in preliminary focus groups already give a sense of the monumental challenges involved in managing the nation’s water resources equitably. The exchanges also suggest the difficulties that lie ahead if changes to the underlying principals are made.

At a Missouri River Authorized Purposes Study focus-group meeting in New Orleans on Feb. 23, speakers weighed in to support each of the eight purposes­ and told facilitators their hopes and fears, including fears of ripple effects downstream. Changes on the Missouri will undoubtedly result in changes on the Mississippi, says Jim Monroe, assistant to the president of the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation, Baton Rouge, La. “If we have low flow, we have problems [with navigation], and from other perspectives, we have problems with coastal erosion and saltwater intrusion,” Monroe says. “It’s a balance.”

Controlling the Missouri’s flow has long been a source of dispute between lawmakers on the southern end of the Mississippi River & Tributaries System and those in the Missouri River Basin. David Humphries, general legal counsel to Magnolia Marine Transport, Vicksburg, Miss., expressed concern that too much emphasis may be placed on recreation and wildlife considerations in the Missouri River Basin and not enough on the downstream effects of the Missouri flows on the Mississippi Rivers.

The Missouri contributes 30% to 74% of Mississippi River flow. Humphries says restrictions would have tremendous, negative economic impacts on national commerce. “The study should include a comparison of economics between Mississippi River navigation and all eight purposes on the Missouri,” he says.

Henry Sullivan, deputy director at the Port of South Louisiana, LaPlace, La., says 67% of the nation’s grain goes through that port, and he wants to make sure the Corps allots funds for sufficient dredging so grain can move.

Others complained about the apparent lack of consideration of other downstream impacts to the Mississippi, including pollution, a Gulf of Mexico dead zone and coastal erosion. Says Matt Rota, program director, Gulf Restoration Network, New Orleans, “We want to make sure we’re looking at an entire system.”

Others noted that navigation historically has been given paramount consideration to the detriment of wildlife and the sediment-starved Mississippi River delta, including the land that protects New Orleans from storm surge and erosion. “If there is no New Orleans, there is no port to have that commerce and economics,” says John Lopez, director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation and Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, Metairie, La.

Kyle Graham, deputy director of coastal activities for Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) says he welcomes the review of water management policies and wishes a similar study would be ordered for the Mississippi. “I like the idea of re-evaluating the focus of projects as we move forward,” Graham says. “We’re starting a process wherein we start to look at the system as a whole.”

The United States Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution, Tucson, Ariz., has a $429,955 contract with the Corps to develop the assessment portion of study. The Osprey Group, Boulder, Colo., is a subcontractor to USIECR and is facilitating 10 focus groups from Bismarck, N.D., to New Orleans. Formal meetings to define the size and shape of the study will begin later this summer. Look for the schedule at