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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Big Muddy' Battle Rages Over River

HAMBURG, Iowa -- The "Big Muddy" used to inspire some of America's most overwrought nature writing.

"A tawny, restless, brawling flood," scribbled one observer. "It makes farming as fascinating as gambling; you never know whether you are going to harvest corn or catfish."

The river itself was a constant adventure, meandering through forests, mutinying its banks, spreading 10 kilometers wide, never standing still. "No other river was ever so dead-set against being navigated," another Missouri-watcher wrote.

Dead-set or not, the Missouri was navigated during the steamboat era, and for a while, it reigned as the main link to the nation's interior. But once the railroad era began in the mid-19th century, shippers no longer needed to risk the river's hazardous currents.

The U.S. Congress and the Army Corps of Engineers nonetheless began channelizing the lower Missouri in 1882, and they continued in fits and starts for a century, building more than 7,500 wood and rock wing-dikes to funnel river water to the center of the channel. In 1915, the corps engineer in Kansas City realized the project was hemorrhaging $1.1 million a year to save shippers $10,000 a year, and proposed abandoning it. But he was promptly denounced by local boosters and influential congressmen - House Speaker James "Champ" Clark of Missouri testified that the corps had "no business making economic analyses, or at least negative ones" - and the work continued.

The final push began in 1943, when a corps official, Lewis Pick, and a Bureau of Reclamation engineer, Glenn Sloan, cut a celebrated deal to build a series of dams in Montana and the Dakotas. The dams were not designed merely for navigation - they were also supposed to impound water for irrigation and flood control - but they solidified the Missouri's uneasy status as a navigable river.

Ultimately, the project rendered the lower Missouri almost unrecognizable.

The water that had drifted across the valley was squeezed into a deeper channel, reducing the river's width by two-thirds. Hairpin turns that had confounded steamboats were sliced off to ease barge travel, reducing the river's length by 203 kilometers. Soft erosive banks that had disintegrated daily were reinforced with unyielding rock revetments. Shallow backwaters and chutes that had teemed with 300 species of wildlife were silted in solid. The natural ebbs and flows that had built sandbars for nesting shorebirds and triggered mysterious reproductive impulses in spawning fish were eliminated to maintain steady water levels for barges. The floodplain that had been forestland is now almost all cropland.

Today, dozens of the homogenized river's species are in serious decline. Two tiny chubs may join the endangered species list. Bald eagles are dwindling. Commercial fishing is at an all-time low. The nonprofit group American Rivers rates the Missouri the nation's second-most endangered river behind the Snake River.

"Obviously, there's been tremendous damage in the past," says Rosemary Hargrave, the corps' project manager for the Missouri. "Unfortunately, when this system was built, the environmental ethic just wasn't what it is today. The question is, what can we do now?"

The latest battle over the Missouri has been brewing since the droughts of the 1980s, when the corps dutifully released water downstream to salvage the barge channel. That helped the few barges hauling grain and fertilizer on the lower Missouri. But it devastated the vibrant recreation industry that had developed around the scenic reservoirs behind the upper-basin dams.

In 1994, the corps made a bold proposal: It would time its dam releases to mimic the old natural river. But that meant suspending navigation in the summer - the first time the corps had ever proposed interrupting navigation on a major waterway - and flooding more river's-edge farmers in the spring. And that meant a fight.

"We got the snot kicked out of us," recalls corps spokesman Paul Johnston.

The barge industry, after all, can be as potent as an untrammeled river. Its leaders are well-wired conglomerates such as CSX, Archer Daniels Midland, ConAgra and Cargill, firms that flooded federal campaigns with more than $10 million from 1991 to 1998.

All of the players in the river drama are certain the matter can only be decided by the courts.