Rural Missouri Magazine

Our river in court

by Frank Stork

A lot of rain fell in the lower Missouri River Basin this spring. At the same time, the upper basin states (the Dakota’s and Montana) endure a multi-year drought. They had little snow this winter so there was no run off to fill their near-empty reservoirs. In addition, their normal spring rains never came. Their drought continues.

Managing river flows from the source of the Missouri River in Montana to the Mississippi above St. Louis and down to the Gulf of Mexico is a tricky business. About the time we think we have a river management plan that will suit everyone, something extraordinary happens.

Take this year for example. After managing drought on the upper river and floods on the lower basin, it was announced that El Niño is expected to revisit us this winter. It’s a lead pipe cinch that river flows won’t be normal again next spring.

The upper basin earthen dams and reservoirs built 50 years ago brought great economic growth to the Plains states. The benefits of flood control, recreation, hydroelectricity and irrigation were instant and continuing.

Marinas sprang up on the lakes. Fish hatcheries expanded and families came from afar to enjoy fishing and recreation. Environmentally clean hydroelectricity spurred economic development. Flood control saved billions in avoided damage. Irrigation and a pure source for community water systems are considered priceless. In addition to all that, taxpayers across the country benefit when annual revenues from these projects flow into the federal treasury annually.

"Mark Twain wrote, 'The river is a wonderful book with a new story every day.' Twain would probably want the folks of the Missouri River Basin to write a new story for our book."

The environmental and ecological interests as well as the agricultural, recreational, power production, flood control and navigational interests must be fairly weighed in a comprehensive river management plan. Through continual annual struggles, we never seem to accomplish that.

Public meetings to discuss and mollify the needs and wants of the varied interest groups become shouting matches. Governors stake out positions to garner positive headlines for themselves. Their individual state lawsuits and public statements become self-serving. They choose not to offer their leadership to work out a comprehensive management plan.

A recent Nebraska news story reported that the fight over managing the flow of the Missouri River broadened this spring when the governor of that state filed a lawsuit asking the Corps of Engineers to release water from Montana’s Fort Peck reservoir for navigation. The governor of South Dakota filed an earlier federal lawsuit seeking to prevent the Corps from lowering water levels on the upper river basin until after the fish eggs have hatched!

Mark Twain wrote, “The river is a wonderful book with a new story every day.” Author Twain would probably want the folks of the Missouri River Basin to write a new story for our book. The latest chapter would be about a comprehensive management plan that everyone would support. The constant maligning of our great river by the governors and the courts would mercifully end.

Will Rogers might suggest that such an achievement was pure common sense.

Stork was executive vice president of the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives and a member of Three Rivers Electric Co-op.


Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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