Adapting to change on the Missouri River, part one


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This article is the first of a three-part series on the environmental changes to the Missouri River. The legislation that caused the environmental damage is reviewed and explained, along with new legislation that, over time, will hopefully provide the cure.

By Gene Zuerlein and Lacey Bodnar

Since 1776, the United States has passed through four eras of public land and resource management, each with its own legislative polices and environmental ethic. First, settlement and development of the original public domain occurred between 1789 and 1834; second, public land resource stewardship with a conservation bent materialized under President Theodore Roosevelt in the early 1900s; third, after World War II, there was ensuing national growth along with many surface water development projects during the big dam era from 1941 to 1962; and fourth came the environmental law era from 1962 to 1990. In due time and as environmental awareness materialized, these four time frames paved the way for the present era of watershed restoration and collaborative stewardship. Little was understood about the importance of keeping ecosystems functionally intact because the science of big rivers has only recently evolved. Today, because of the extensive overdevelopment of our water resources in the past, and the resulting unforeseen environmental impacts, the United States is entering an era of reallocation, conservation and ecosystem restoration. Because a lot of change is happening on the Missouri River, the authors wish to present a synopsis of activities related to the Missouri River of Lewis and Clark fame.


The vast Missouri River basin from top to bottom covers 530,000 square miles or 339,200,000 acres in parts of nine states: Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri. The Missouri River begins at Three Forks, Mont., where the Gallatin, Jefferson and Madison rivers merge (Figure 1). From there, it flows east and southeast to its confluence with the Mississippi River near Saint Louis, Mo. From the mountains to the plains, the Missouri River was dynamic throughout its 2,546 miles length in 1804–1806. It was self-sustaining and the rules of Mother Nature were in force. The mighty river ran out of the mountains and meandered across its floodplain, creating a diversity of riverine and floodplain habitats in different successional stages. Some of these meanders were tens of miles in circumference. Examples that can still be observed on the landscape today include DeSoto Bend (part of the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge, presently cut off from the river) east of Blair, Neb., and Lake Quinnebaugh (silted in and privately owned) in Burt County, Neb. Due to human intervention, much of the river has been dammed, straightened and channelized, leaving a river that is only 2,341 miles long or 200 miles shorter than the river at the time of Lewis and Clark.

With the Louisiana Purchase in hand, Congress, needing to know what it had acquired, authorized an expedition in 1803 to discover the region’s scientific, geographical, commercial and agriculture potential, as well as the culture of native Americans. President Thomas Jefferson promptly commissioned the Lewis and Clark Expedition to explore and investigate the Missouri River with the hope of finding and mapping a water route to the west coast. The charge:           “…your mission is to explore the Missouri River … and to learn all you can” (President Thomas Jefferson, 1804).

Although a water passage to the Pa­cific proved to be nonexistent, Con­gress did recognize the need to improve navigation on the Missouri River and appropriated funds in 1824 to the Corps of Engineers to re­move large tree snags and other obstacles in the Missouri River chan­nel. Navigation via steamboats began to wane in the late 1880s when river traffic declined north of Sioux City, Iowa. Focus on the river then shifted to the southern part of the basin. In 1910, Congress, under pres­sure from farming and barge interests, authorized de- ­­velopment of a six-foot-deep navigation channel be­- tween St. Louis and Kansas City. World War I interrupted the appropriation of funds for this project, but activities resumed in 1927 when Congress authorized the extension of the six-foot channel to Sioux City, Iowa, as well as a feasibility study for a nine-foot-deep navigation channel from St. Louis to Kansas City. With funding secure, the Corps of Engineers launched a program designed to narrow the river and eliminate meandering by combining bank stabilization, the placement of long dikes mostly perpendicular to the channel but across the entire river erosion zone (meander belt) and dredging. The long dike fields directed water to the main channel, but the spaces between the numerous dikes also silted in, thus restricting the river to a very narrow channel. This eventually resulted in a highly engineered, self-scouring navigation channel with very little dredging required.

True to her nature, and as part of the hydrologic cycle, Mother Nature continues to periodically send floods to rejuvenate the Missouri River and its floodplain. Congress initially considered floods primarily a local responsibility until passage of the 1917 Flood Control Act. The Rivers and Harbor Act of 1927 authorized the Corps of Engineers to conduct surveys to formulate comprehensive water development plans in several river basins, including the Missouri River. The Flood Control Act of 1936 declared floods a federal responsibility and established a national flood-control policy. After another major Missouri River flood in 1943, the Corps of Engineers prepared a report to Congress recommending that major dams be built on the main stem of the Missouri, Yellowstone and Republican rivers. In the meantime, Fort Peck Dam in Montana, which was constructed mainly to support downstream navigation, was under construction. Fort Peck Dam was closed in 1937, and by 1939 the reservoir contained enough water to provide flow support for navigation in the lower river as well as the generation of hydropower.

Additional dams were identified for the main stem Missouri River with passage of the Flood Control Act of 1944. This official act is also known as the Pick-Sloan Plan because it merged two similar plans from the Bureau of Reclamation and the Corps of Engineers that had been submitted to Congress. Both agencies met in Omaha, Neb., in October 1944 to reconcile their respective plan differences. Con­gress settled the differences by giving the Corps jurisdiction for building and operating six main stem dams, while the Bureau of Reclamation was given jurisdiction for tributary dams and irrigation. At the same time, there was growing support for a Missouri River Authority in Congress, but a basin governance authority was never implemented. Native American tribes took a dim view of the Pick-Sloan Plan because the project would flood over one million acres of tribal land, much of it prime bottomland. The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 had granted tribes a permanent homeland for their agricultural economy and culture along the Missouri River, but little consideration was given to the tribes when the 1944 legislation was enacted.

The Flood Control Act of 1944 authorized six main stem dams (which included Fort Peck. The dams and the year they were closed include: Fort Peck (1937) in Montana, Fort Randall (1952) in South Dakota, Garrison (1953) in North Dakota, Gavins Point (1955) in Nebraska and South Dakota, Oahe (1958) in South Dakota and Big Bend (1963) in South Dakota. These six Missouri River main stem reservoirs have the largest storage capacity of any set of dams in the United States, 73.4 million acre-feet of water. Authorized purposes of the Flood Control Act of 1944 included flood control, water supply, water quality, irrigation, navigation, hydropower, and fish and wildlife and recreation. The Corp of Engineers uses a Master Manual, first prepared in 1960, as the primary guidance document for operation of the main-stem reservoirs, supplemented with a detailed Annual Operating Plan.

Related Story

Adapting to change on the Missouri River, part two

Adapting to change on the Missouri River, part three


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