MRRIC brings collaboration to Missouri River issues


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By John E. Thorson

The Missouri River is synonymous with western history. From its mouth near St. Louis to its headwaters west of Bozeman, Montana, America’s longest river evokes the legends of Lewis and Clark, Sacagawea, steamboats, epic floods and monumental dams. Congressional passage of the 1944 Pick-Sloan Plan initiated decades of dam construction, flood control and navigation improvements on the river. The Missouri has also been the venue for waves of litigation and conflict—somewhat ironic given the generally plentiful river. For example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s (USACE) revision of the Master Water Control Manual for operating main-stem reservoirs on the river, commenced in 1989, took 15 years to complete in the face of controversy over how the many users of the river would be affected.

In the aftermath of this conflict, a committee oddly known as MRRIC is pioneering new approaches for resolving conflicts involving large river systems. The Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee—MRRIC—is a 70-member assembly of sovereign and stakeholder representatives who are working collaboratively on pressing river issues.

For all its force and bounty, the Missouri faces a suite of problems challenging decision makers. The pallid sturgeon, a fish tracing its origins to the late Cretaceous period 70 million years ago, is listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). Two bird species foraging and nesting near the river are also listed: the interior least tern as endangered and the piping plover as threatened. While the main-stem dams have reduced the risk of catastrophic flooding, tributary inflows and unusual weather can still result in flooding. The USACE is increasingly challenged in managing six main-stem dams, constructed in the 1930s and following decades, in our contemporary era of environmental consciousness and changed economics. Water levels can rapidly fluctuate both in the upper basin reservoirs and the lower river, complicating water intakes and other commercial uses, as well as bird nesting patterns. Scientists and others are concerned about how dams and navigation channels have changed the sedimentation patterns in the river. The list goes on and on.

During the master manual revision, the USACE was criticized from all sides. The requirements of Biological Opinions issued in 2000 and 2003 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to protect the listed species limited the USACE’s range of options, and the agency was challenged to find the right mix of flows and storage to satisfy all interests. During summer 2003, the USACE was defendant in six lawsuits filed in different federal courts. When the agency was able to issue its master manual in 2004, it committed to a different approach to future decision making. In signing the record of decision, Brigadier General William T. Grisoli pledged that river restoration actions “will be identified, reviewed, modified, and implemented through coordination with a Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee, which will include stakeholder representation…”

To advance the MRRIC concept, the U.S. Institute for Environmental Cooperation (an impartial federal entity located in Tucson, Ariz., providing conflict-resolution services) worked with the USACE and other federal agencies (which continue to work together as a Federal Working Group) and stakeholders to commission a situation assessment performed by CDR Associates of Boulder, Colo. In its 2006 report, CDR provided a detailed concept of how MRRIC might be created and what it might accomplish.

The USACE and other federal agencies active in the Missouri River Basin asked the institute to convene a Planning Group of sovereign and stakeholder representatives to draft a proposed charter for MRRIC. The Planning Group consisted of a Drafting Team that met 10 times during 2007–2008 to develop charter language and a Review Team that critiqued the drafts. During this period, Congress passed the Water Resources Development Act of 2007; Section 5018 of the legislation authorized the establishment of MRRIC. On July 1, 2008, the Drafting Team presented John P. Woodley Jr., assistant secretary of the army (civil works) with a proposed charter, which he approved that day.

MRRIC does not make management decisions for the Missouri River. The charter specifies that MRRIC’s purposes are primarily to provide guidance and recommendations to the USACE and other federal agencies on (a) the ongoing Missouri River mitigation and recovery plan and (b) the long-term Missouri River Ecosystem Restoration Plan (MRERP). MRRIC members are encouraged to articulate their perspectives and flag when policies might negatively impact their interests.

The MRRIC Charter establishes a committee with state, tribal, federal and stakeholder representation. The eight main-stem states may appoint members, and all have done so. All 28 basin tribes are authorized to appoint representatives, and 18 have done so. The USACE and USFWS are standing Lead Federal Agencies, and other federal agencies are represented as Participating Federal Agencies. Federal agencies are not counted for quorums or consensus determinations.

Sixteen stakeholder categories (e.g., navigation, irrigation, environmental/ conservation) are identified in the charter and a total of 28 MRRIC members are selected from these categories. State, tribal and federal agencies appoint their own representatives and alternates. Stakeholder representatives are appointed by the commander, USACE Northwestern Division, based on applications and demonstrated support from stakeholder organizations. MRRIC selects its chair and vice chair. A talented team from RESOLVE, a nonprofit firm dedicated to the use of consensus building in public decision making, facilitates meetings and conference calls. The U.S. Institute continues to provide overall assistance.

MRRIC’s most distinctive feature is the consensus requirement. For a substantive recommendation to be adopted, state, tribal and stakeholder representatives must support or “be able to live with” the recommendation.

While MRRIC decision making can be tedious, the committee was able to reach consensus on many important subjects during its initial year. They include

  • Adopting internal operating procedures and ground rules and establishing a series of specialized work groups allowing MRRIC to work efficiently;
  • Selecting an interim chair, the initial chair and vice chair, and a facilitation team;
  • Developing multifaceted ways to engage with federal agencies on a wide range of concerns, including a partnered independent science program and the USACE’s long-term restoration plan (MRERP); and
  • Approving recommendations to federal agencies addressing the endangered pallid sturgeon and the purpose and need for the MRERP study.

MRRIC met six times during 2009, its first full year of operations. The 2010 schedule calls for four meetings to be held: St. Louis (Feb. 2–4), Bismarck (April 27–29), Sheridan (July 20–22) and Iowa (Oct. 19–21)—plus a video linking various transmission sites on March 24. A typical MRRIC meeting is preceded with optional field trips or other educational activities. Before the recent St. Louis meeting, MRRIC members visited Columbia Bottoms at the confluence of the Missouri with the Mississippi, the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center in Godfrey, Ill., and the Melvin Price Locks and Dam complex on the Mississippi. Brigadier General John R. McMahon, commander of the USACE’s Northwestern Division, accompanied MRRIC members on the trip.

Official MRRIC meetings usually run from Tuesday morning to Thursday noon, and the agenda consists of information sessions, business sessions, and work-group meetings. Work groups, whose members also participate in two or three conference calls between each MRRIC meeting, conduct much of the committee’s work. Work groups have been formed on the ongoing recovery program, MRERP, integrated science, communications, nominations and agenda development. A Special Committee on Tribal Participation was established at the St. Louis meeting to explore ways to increase tribal involvement in MRRIC.

Despite its initial successes, MRRIC faces daunting challenges as it begins its second full year of operations. They include

Reaching consensus on substantive recommendations—MRRIC’s charter requires that members in attendance reach consensus at two consecutive meetings on substantive recommendations to the USACE and other federal agencies. The consensus requirement provides opportunities for members to vet pending recommendations with constituents, prevents a tyranny of the majority and ensures broad support for approved measures. As MRRIC turns to the difficult issues of Missouri River recovery, finding consensus may be tedious and sometimes impossible. If recent meetings are predictive, MRRIC members are increasingly proficient in communicating their interests, brainstorming alternatives and agreeing on practical solutions.

Time and expense of participating—The federal legislation establishing MRRIC (WRDA 2007) bars any compensation for nonfederal members’ service—or even reimbursement of their travel expenses. This legislation, particularly the travel reimbursement ban, makes MRRIC participation costly for all members and is particularly burdensome during the recession.

A recent survey estimates that nonfederal members collectively spent more than 10,000 hours on committee activities during the first year of operations—an average of more than 255 hours per person. At the average national hourly rate ($20 per hour), this volunteer service is conservatively estimated at $253,000. Members or their organizations likely incurred more than $180,000 in travel expenses to meetings—a total of $433,000 for non-federal members’ time and expenses.

MRRIC members participate to protect or advance their personal or organizational interests, but they also provide a valuable public service in improving decision making concerning the river. Some MRRIC members are actively working on legislation to overturn the travel reimbursement ban, and their efforts may be crucial in assuring members’ long-term commitment and involvement.

“Missouri River Fatigue”—The increasing attention to Missouri River issues means that MRRIC members and federal agency staff find it increasingly difficult to participate in the long list of meetings and events: public meetings on the USACE’s annual operating plan, MRERP scoping meetings, scientific conferences, constituent briefings—all in addition to MRRIC’s own many meetings and conference calls. The USACE has also been mandated by Congress to study the congressionally authorized purposes for federal involvement in the river (MRAPS, the Missouri River Authorized Purposes Study), and this work is adding to the many meetings and creating uncertainties for many MRRIC members about whether MRRIC and MRAPS are complementary or competitive undertakings.

The relatively few number of people knowledgeable about the Missouri River, in a basin of millions of residents, compounds the fatigue factor. MRRIC members have discussed how they can recruit and educate a new generation of leaders on these issues.

In conclusion, basin residents might wish themselves transported to a future of improved policies and institutions for the Missouri River. However, such wishful thinking does not account for the uncertainties of actually identifying those improved policies and institutions and the difficult, tedious work of negotiating the necessary agreements. MRRIC’s crucial challenges are ahead—especially the needs of the pallid sturgeon, least tern and piping plover; but I’m encouraged by the shared learning that is underway for MRRIC members, their improved abilities to mend a conflict or solve a problem, and the growing goodwill for one another and our shared task.

As our able vice chair, Randy Asbury, has noted, we are a “Corps of Recovery,” restoring both our personal relationships with one another and our relationship to the river. Once again, the Missouri River challenges our pioneering spirit.

MRRIC’s Web site is, and the committee’s charter and annual report may be found under the “MRRIC Documents” tab. More information on MRERP may be found at



Thanks, John, for the article. I think all of us working on the Missouri River have our work cut out for us in educating ourselves and the public about the multitude of MR acronyms going on right now. Hopefully we can work together on making this happen. Steve Schnarr Missouri River Relief

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