Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Balance Sought Between Man, Beast

HAMBURG, Iowa -- The hot buzzword along the Missouri River these days is "balance."

The common rap goes like this: The river does not belong to barges. Or to the pallid sturgeon. It does not belong to boaters. Or to farmers. There has to be a balance.

Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, the most prominent "balance" advocate, is pushing a bill that would establish "fish and wildlife" as an Army Corps of Engineers priority on par with "navigation."

"Today, we have different ideas about what's an important use of the river," Kerrey says. "Obviously, it's not just barges anymore. We need to strike a new balance."

Usually, though, when Army Corps of Engineers officials talk about "balance," they're thinking of new priorities in addition to barges, not instead of barges. They say their choices are not either-or; they can continue to support navigation full throttle, while helping to restore wetlands their agency has destroyed, and promoting recreation to boot. "We really think we can do it all," says Paul Johnston, corps spokesman in Omaha, Nebraska.

On the Missouri, that means unplugging sidechannels like the Hamburg chute, widening some river bends, lowering and notching dikes, perhaps even removing a few - while maintaining 2.7 uniform meters of water in the barge channel. But that will require money; the corps spends only $8 million a year on mitigation for the Missouri, half what it spends shoring up the barge channel. Meanwhile, corps officials say their waterways need billions of dollars for renovations; half their dams have reached the end of their 50-year design lives.

"This green infusion for the corps, it's going to take another infusion of green, if you know what I mean," says corps operations chief Charles Hess. "Nothing comes for free."

The U.S. Congress has already authorized five major mitigation projects on corps-constructed waterways - the Missouri, the Upper Mississippi, the Tennessee-Tombigbee, the Snake and the Columbia - as well as dozens of smaller restoration projects. Kerrey's bill would pump another $320 million into the Missouri basin, funding nature-building efforts like the Hamburg chute, riverfront revitalization initiatives in communities such as Omaha and Kansas City, and new Lewis and Clark interpretive centers in towns like St. Charles, Missouri. And last year, Congress tripled the acreage authorized for wildlife refuges along the Missouri.

But to critics of the corps' traditional build-anything approach, this new desire to float barges and restore rivers at the same time smacks of the hard-choice avoidance that Joseph Westphal, now assistant Army secretary in charge of civil works, says is ancient history. If these barge channels are so important, they say, then the barge industry should pay more than one-eighth of the costs of maintaining and renovating them.

"On most of these rivers, the economics of navigation makes no sense whatsoever," says C. Philip Baumel, an Iowa State University economics professor. "Of course, the politics are a completely different question."

It certainly is. Today, the main reform plan circulating in Congress would not shift the costs of the underachieving system to its industrial users. Nor would it accept reformers' proposals to privatize the system's waterways - the nation's most subsidized transportation network - or shift the system's resources toward high-volume rivers.

What it would do is double the system's construction budget.