Adapting to change on the Missouri River, part three


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This article is the third 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

Present (continued)

The historic Missouri River downstream of the mountainous reach was braided with swift, muddy flows; its floodplain was a ribbon of islands, chutes, oxbows, backwaters, marshes, grasslands and forest, and its channel contained sandbars and wooded islands. In many ways, past modifications to the Missouri River ecosystem can be compared to the home you and I live in. In the 735 miles of channelized river downstream of Sioux City, incrementally over time we took the kitchen, dining room, living room, bedroom, garage, den and patio away from the fish species that depended upon riverine and floodplain habitats, and now all they have left is the hallway running through the house to meet their life-cycle needs. No wonder the National Research Council found that 51 of 67 native fish species are near the brink of being listed threatened/endangered. It was because of the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act that changes to improve the ecosystem started to materialize. Although the Master Manual has been modified, the update was always within the defined, congressionally authorized purposes of the 1944 Flood Control Act. The questions we must now ask ourselves include what has changed in the past 65 years, are the original purposes relevant for future generations, are they sustainable and are there more ecosystem goods and services that could be contributed to our society if the ecosystem is made healthy? Should the 1944 Flood Control Act be updated to reflect contemporary needs?

Because 520,000 acres of important riverine habitat (principally, the meander belt zone of the floodplain, which includes land and water) was lost when the Missouri River was channelized below Sioux City, the feasibility of a mitigation project was studied under authority of the 1958 Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act (Public Law 85-624) for the bank stabilization and navigation project (BSNP) on the Missouri River between Sioux City, Iowa, and St. Louis, Mo. The coordination act required mitigation if a project was less than 60 percent complete on Aug. 12, 1958. Since the project fell in this category, Section 601(a) of the Water Resources Development Act of 1986 (Public Law 99-662) authorized the Missouri River Fish and Wildlife Mitigation project for the states of Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri. Initially, only 48,100 acres of terrestrial and aquatic habitat were authorized to be mitigated, but the Water Resources Development Act of 1999 increased this amount by an additional 118,650 acres. In 2002, the Lincoln Journal Star (LJS) published an article on “Life with the Missouri River as part of people’s lives in Brownville.” After interviewing respective citizens about the Missouri River, Nebraska residents had this to say: (1) “The sad part of it is, industry never grew up to take advantage of what the Missouri was capable of doing” (Bob Sage, Brownville resident and former Corps of Engineers employee for 35 years and 10 months, Lincoln Journal Star, Sunday, July 28, Section F); (2) “ If I had my way, it would go back to the way it was—God’s plan. We’ve done so much in the name of progress, but we made some errors” (Gene Bridgewater, Lincoln Journal Star, Sunday, July 28, Section F) and (3) On Missouri River Mitigation: “A lot of people have tried to chain it down and pull its teeth. Now we’re trying to give it some elbow room” (Rep. Doug Bereuter, Nebraska, Lincoln Journal Star, Oct. 31, page 1B). In 2003, the Omaha World-Herald printed this comment from Brian Ward, former manager, Omaha barge port (Omaha World-Herald, Sept. 29, page 8B): “I’ve seen so many changes on the river in 23 years … In this business if you don’t like change, you’re going to be left behind.”

Currently, 166,750 acres or 32 percent of the total lost acreage (520,000) has been authorized by Congress to be mitigated. No one knows how many acres for sure it will take to restore the ecosystem and make the river resilient again. Of the amount set by Congress to date, 55,539 acres (33 percent) of the erosion zone within the meander belt (high risk, flood prone) have been returned to the river on a willing-seller basis in the states of Nebraska (9,551 acres), Iowa (12,570 acres), Kansas (4,745 acres) and Missouri (28,673 acres). No doubt, more of the former high-risk flood prone acres would be helpful to restoring riverine processes and functions. For example, giving the river space to function for an erodible corridor would help build resilience and restore riverine habitat building processes. In essence, letting the river be the engineer to create floodplain habitat within the old erosion zone would not only help fish and wildlife resources and the ecosystem but also help increase flood storage on the floodplain when it rains below Gavins Point Dam. As a result, future flood stages would likely be less downstream and a rejuvenated floodplain with a diversity of terrestrial plant communities would be able to distribute vital nutrients throughout the ecosystem. This is akin to working with Mother Nature rather than trying to control her at all costs, as was historically the mindset. On the other hand, if we do not change and maintain the status quo management, repetitive federal bailouts in the billions of dollars can be expected after every future major flood, because that is how much the flood of 1993 cost the U.S. taxpayer. Fiscal damages ranged from $12–$16 billion, with agriculture accounting for over half of the damages.

Missouri River Recovery Program accomplishments to date 

Because of the 2000 Biological Opinion and the 2003 Amended Biological Opinion, the Corps of Engineers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have established a Missouri River Recovery Program (MRRP) for the listed species (least tern, piping plover, pallid sturgeon) and are working cooperatively and collaboratively to implement it (Figure 2). Elements include the mitigation project previously mentioned to help meet established habitat goals, a monitoring and research endeavor to go with adaptive management and a stocking program for the pallid sturgeon. Appropriately, Congress directed that the Corps of Engineers develop an overall Missouri River Ecosystem Recovery Plan (MRERP) in the 2007 Water Resources Development Act. Consequently, the Corps of Engineers, in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has initiated a collaborative effort to develop a plan to identify and guide actions required to restore ecosystem functions, mitigate habitat losses and recover native fish and wildlife on the Missouri, while seeking balance with social, economic and cultural values for future generations. Tribal and state representatives are participating as cooperating agencies because of their public trust responsibilities. A committee called the Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee (MRRIC) for stakeholders has been created to help advise the Corps. When completed, the ecosystem recovery plan will guide the work that needs to be done throughout the Missouri River Basin and will be a good accounting tool for Congress to measure progress on recovering the Missouri River ecosystem. 


There have been a number of official organizations operating within the Missouri River Basin in the past. The newest is the Missouri River Association of States and Tribes (MORAST), which has been approved by all basin governors except Missouri. This organization has both directors/representatives of state departments of water (e.g., Nebraska Department Natural Resources) and departments of fish and wildlife (e.g., Nebraska Game and Parks Commission) from the basin, in addition to appropriate tribal representatives all in one. Among other actions, MORAST has supported a review of the Flood Control Act of 1944, because of the numerous past controversies related to Missouri River management throughout the Missouri River basin and because of the limitations and constraints imposed by the Flood Control Act of 1944 on mitigation and recovery efforts. In spring 2009, Congress passed the Omnibus Appropriations Act, which authorized and appropriated $25 million for the express purpose of reviewing the original Flood Control Act of 1944 and other subsequent relevant legislation and judicial rulings to determine if changes to the authorized project purposes and existing federal water resource infrastructure may be warranted. This study will be initiated Oct. 1, 2009. All authorized purposes will be on the table and, if warranted, adjustments will hopefully be made by Congress to ensure the river is sustainable for future generations. This review is vitally needed, given that it has been 65 years since the Flood Control Act of 1944 was passed. It should complement but not duplicate the Missouri River Ecosystem Recovery Plan, which was initiated in early 2009. The latter plan will be a multiyear process and will go through a National Environmental Protection Act process and an Environmental Impact Statement process, cumulating in a Record of Decision. Once signed by the Corps of Engineers, the agency will officially be obligated to carry out its provisions. The recovery plan will have opportunities for public involvement and will set goals, objectives and strategies to recover the Missouri River ecosystem. While both the 1944 Flood Control Act review and Missouri River Ecosystem Recovery Plan are being addressed, mitigation efforts to restore habitat in the channelized Missouri River and reasonable alternatives stemming from the Master Manual Biological Opinion will continue to be implemented throughout the basin. Hopefully, resiliency will be restored so the Missouri River will become self-sustaining for our children and our children’s children.

Related Stories:

Adapting to change on the Missouri River, part one

Adapting to change on the Missouri River, part two


Immigration in Nebraska