The Army Corps of Engineers is taking heat again for its management of the Missouri River as concerns about the low water level in the Mississippi River add a dash of Tabasco to the mix. But it’s Congress that has the ability — and the responsibility — to resolve conflicting interests.
The corps is charged with managing the Missouri according to eight priorities ranging from flood control to barge traffic, power generation to recreation to irrigation. How it balances those priorities affects every state that borders the river, but Congress has given the agency little guidance.
Right now, Mississippi River shippers are worried that the 180-mile stretch between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill., will soon be too shallow to permit barge traffic to pass; any lengthy shutdown of river traffic could cost shippers, barge companies and states billions of dollars.
So far, water released from an upper Missouri River dam, an Illinois lake and recent storms has kept the barges afloat, though with restrictions. When the river falls to nine feet, which according to the National Weather Service could be mid-January, even harsher restraints are expected. On Dec. 13, the water was 12 feet deep.
After massive flooding in 2011, a severe regional dry spell has lowered the water level in the dams that store Missouri River water even as the Mississippi’s level has fallen, too. At St. Louis, the Missouri contributes about 78 percent of the volume of water in the Mississippi.
The corps was sharply criticized by many officials as well as flooding victims for failing to foresee more clearly and react more decisively to massive amounts of water that poured into the Missouri system in 2011 from extraordinarily heavy snowmelt and storms. The corps’ estimates now indicate that the Missouri’s big upstream reservoirs will start the 2013 runoff season with about 8 million acre-feet less water than they were designed to optimally hold. (An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover one acre of land one foot deep.)
That means the corps’ response to demands for more water releases to benefit Mississippi barge traffic would come at the expense of upstream reservoirs and their recreation, power generation and irrigation responsibilities. The federal agency has held steady in its determination to husband Missouri flow, judging that the downstream dilemma wouldn’t be as quick to hit nor as severe as feared. So far it has been right.
But it sometimes seems as if Congress has set up the corps to take a battering from eight directions, corresponding to the eight special interests it is supposed to rank, and from every state that borders the river.
There must be a balance maintained among the priorities. If all priorities are equal, then certainly flood control should be first among equals. After that, special interests intrude and the discussion turns too easily into a squabble.
It is on Capitol Hill that such a debate should take place. Congress needs to go back into the Master Manual legislation it passed authorizing the corps to manage the Missouri. Once the issue is reopened, Congress can express itself more specifically to guide the corps in its decision-making process.
It also would be worthwhile for U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, to reintroduce in the new Congress his proposed bill designed to prevent recurrence of the severe floods of 2011. He would have the corps revise the Master Manual to increase the total amount of storage space allocated for flood control within the Missouri system.
King had bipartisan support for his measure. It deserves reconsideration.
As for the question of priorities for the Missouri River, the corps needs and deserves direction from Congress, which is the group best able to weigh competing interests, look at costs and benefits and reach a reasonable compromise and consensus. Until it does, the corps will have to continue reacting to circumstances, listening to second-guessers and sometimes pleasing no one.