Accessibility links

Breaking News

America's Longest River: The Delicate Balance of Economic vs. Environment - 2001-04-01

This is part one of a feature series on the World's Great Rivers. Check back in coming weeks for additional stories.

An elaborate network of dams and reservoirs controls the flow of the Missouri River. But when biologists noticed a sharp decline in several species that live in and along the river, manmade control of the waterway was thrown into question. Now a plan to change the river's flow to help the endangered species recover has sparked battle.

In the plains of the American Midwest, dams harness the flow of rivers like a giant faucet. The U.S. Army's Corps of Engineers, which oversees most of those dams, has prepared guidelines regulating when and how much water is released from each dam.

The Missouri River Master Manual is the "Bible" for the operation of America's longest river. Over time, the dams have changed the river system from its natural flow to an artificial one more favorable for navigation and riverside development. However, the practice of drawing-down river levels just a few months a year has placed two bird species and one species of fish in danger of extinction by throwing off their reproductive cycles.

To save the pallid sturgeon, the piping plover and the inland least tern, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed interrupting the long navigation season with a period of low water.

Mike Olson helped draft the plan. "The recommendations from the Fish and Wildlife Service are in this document called a biological opinion," he said. "That document is the scientific evidence that supports those recommendations. And the document has, oh, approximately 500 different journal articles that supports this concept that rivers need to function like rivers in order for species to survive."

But if rivers function like rivers, the shipping industry might not survive. If the so-called split season proposal is enacted, barge operators say they won't have enough water to operate during the normal season.

"It will basically eliminate barge transportation on the Missouri River," said Lynn Meunch, who works for the Midwest Area River Coalition, a group opposed to the river changes. "The split season makes it impossible for the barge companies to cost-effectively work on the Missouri because not only will they have a shorter season, it will be interrupted halfway," she said.

Large cranes line the Missouri River shore and hoist cargo from barges at terminals like this one in Kansas City, Missouri. The use of barges to move goods has declined in the United States, as population centers moved away from rivers, and trucks and trains have become the nation's dominate means of moving goods.

But economists like Adam Bronstone say the barge industry's market share isn't the issue. "It's not really how much barge is used, but the fact that barge is a viable option," he said. "Barge becomes important because it does significantly influence the price of transporting by other modes."

Mr. Bronstone says the mere fact barges are available keeps the costs of truck and rail transport competitive. Although barge traffic is slower, the vessels carry 15 times more than the average rail car and 60 times more than a tractor-trailer truck. A rise or decline in barge traffic could have a significant impact on the nation's highway system.

Kurt Koepsel, however, says the needs of the barge industry aren't as important as protecting the environment. Mr. Koepsel works for the Sierra Club, a powerful American environmental group that supports changing the Missouri's flow. "The river's never - at least in the foreseeable future is not going to go back to what it once was," he said. "But I think there can be changes in its management that will greatly improve the river for its wildlife, its fish species. And changes can be made that would, I think, really help the river out."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has twice postponed its decision on changing the Missouri River's flow. The latest delay is blamed on a backlog of over 2,000 public comments it must review before it makes a decision. Most of those comments come from Missouri lawmakers, who have strenuously opposed the plan. Also, the governors of nine states bordering the Mississippi River have asked President Bush to stop the changes. They say lowering the Missouri will lower river levels on the Mississippi which would hurt shipping commerce and deliver a serious blow to the nation's economy.

Ultimately, the Corps of Engineers will make the decision on whether to balance the burdens of change to save both navigation and the endangered species, or capsize the decision one way or the other, in effect sinking ecology or economy.