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Future of Missouri River Debated


Commemorations have been springing up along the Missouri River as Americans mark the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark followed the river's path for much of their historic journey from the American Middle West to the Pacific and back. But even as the 3-year bicentennial focuses new attention on the fabled river's past, there is continued controversy over its future.

Few people would disagree that the Missouri is a river with a mind of its own. The 4,000 kilometer waterway is famous for its sharp twists and turns, steep drops and fierce currents. But there is lots of disagreement over how to manage that unpredictable river. Jeff Barrow of Columbia, Missouri helps run a clean-up group called Missouri River Relief. He is also an avid canoeist, who calls being on the Missouri "a transforming experience." "You can feel the current flowing under your feet," says Mr. Barrow. "And where I paddle it, there's no dam or anything -- it's just one continuous body of water -- and it's a humbling and powerful feeling at the same time."

Jeff Barrow says he would like to see the Missouri River returned to something more like its natural state, with restored links to nearby floodplains and wetlands. But Tom Waters of Orrick, Missouri describes floodplains as "just a fancy word for floods." He is a 7th generation family farmer, and chairman of the Missouri Levee and Drainage Association.

When he looks out at the Missouri, he recalls the 1993 deluge that devastated much of his cropland. "Today it looks pretty serene and calm," he notes, as he looks out over the river that runs by his farm. "But I also see a lot of memories of when that river isn't so calm and can be pretty ferocious. When that river gets out of those banks, it causes a lot of trouble for a lot of people."

Journalist Bill Lambrecht heard those conflicting sentiments -- and many more -- during the years he spent traveling the Missouri. A Washington correspondent for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, he has written Big Muddy Blues: True Tales and Twisted Politics Along Lewis and Clark's Missouri River. He set out on his trip after noting how much official controversy the river has generated -- controversies that range from the U.S. Congress, to the Fish and Wildlife Service, to the Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees river management programs.

The debates involve 2 main issues, says Bill Lambrecht, the first being the environment. "There's no question that in the way we've run that river in recent decades, we've been harming endangered species," he explains. "So you have that whole dichotomy there with endangered species versus the needs of bargers and farmers. But there's an entirely separate battle here, and that's for water sufficiency. And right now it's at its zenith, with upstream states suffering from a punishing drought, and downstream, Missouri especially, needing that water for drinking and power production."

Many of the debates date back to efforts to control the river for navigation and flood control. "Back in the middle of the century, when some of our priorities were different, we didn't hesitate to build huge dams and undertake massive engineering projects in this country," says Bill Lambrecht. "So perhaps one of the boldest engineering projects in this nation's history, at least with regard to the environment, was damming the longest river."

But growing concerns for both the environment and historic preservation have raised questions about the Missouri River's management. Gordon Julich is Superintendent of Historic Sites for Jackson County Parks and Recreation. From a spot along the river at Fort Osage, near Kansas City, Missouri, he points out what was once a sharp bend. "It used to be extremely hazardous to navigation," Mr. Julich notes. "In the 1950s, the Corps eliminated the entire meander in the river and channelized it. And what you're looking at right now is almost everything modern man can do to a river except for dam it and put a lock on it."

At a nearby spot on the other side of the river, Tom Waters displays maps to show the river has not changed all that much over the past 2 centuries. "The bends are in a little bit different place, but it doesn't cover this whole floodplain like some people would lead you to believe," says the Missouri farmer. "There wasn't this big, several-miles-wide, braided, shallow stream. It was a roaring, dangerous river."

While Tom Waters supports much of the work of the Corps of Engineers, he also believes debates among official agencies have drowned out the voices of private citizens directly affected by the river. Individuals on other sides of the issue echo that claim. Journalist Bill Lambrecht says damming has cost Native Americans not only their homes, but grave sites and artifacts. "This is something that strikes very deeply in the psyche of Indians who revere their dead," notes Mr. Lambrecht. "There have been court cases and a lot of demonstrations along the river. But I think more broadly it gets back to the question of whether the people who've lived on the river the longest will have a say in what happens to the river."

Tribes with a history of conflict are forging a united voice to protest the losses. Other efforts to bring divergent groups together are also underway. Gordon Julich says Jackson County Parks and Recreation has been working with both the Army Corps of Engineers and the Fish and Wildlife Service to maintain Fort Osage, where a new education center is being built. Explorer William Clark established the fort in 1808, on a site that also contains Native American artifacts. "Part of what we're trying to do is to return the vegetation back to a more indigenous variety that would have been appropriate in the early 1800s when Lewis and Clark were here," explains Mr. Julich. "You can never go back in history, but I think we have a responsibility to try to protect and make available for interpretation what we can."

On the other side of the state, Missouri River Relief recently held a major clean up in St. Louis. Some 350 volunteers -- everyone from teenagers to barge company officials -- joined in the effort to pull milk cartons, soda bottles and other trash from the river. Organizer Jeff Barrow believes they accomplished something else as well. "I think that in America, at least recently, we look at rivers as a way to divide people," says Mr. Barrow. "They're state borders, for example, and right now the political divisions that are happening between the upstream states and the downstream states are an example of that way that we are dividing. And one of the things I like about these clean-ups is it does unite people."

Whether they see the river as a source of power and water, a threat to their livelihood, a force of nature, or a symbol of living history -- a lot of people have a stake in the Missouri. The challenge is to create more forums where they can all make their voices