The Nefarious Connection Between Agriculture and Our Rivers (Part 3 of 4)

This is part 3 of a 4 part series by Brad Walker of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment analyzing The Nefarious Connection Between Agriculture and Our Rivers.

Read parts 1 and 2

Part 3: Small steps towards river repair

There are currently effective Congressionally-authorized programs on the Missouri, Illinois and Upper Mississippi Rivers that have made steps in improving the health of our important rivers. The major functional problems with them are scope and funding. Unfortunately, full-scale efforts to restore these rivers have both been corrupted by special interest politics.

Missouri River Restoration

The obvious first priority is reconnecting the remaining 100,000+ acres of 166,750 acres of floodplain to the Missouri River authorized by Congress in the 1986, 1999, and 2007 Water Resources Development Acts (WRDA). This is only about a third of the 522,000 acres lost but none-the-less an amount that will have an impact. We are currently on an unacceptable path of possibly attaining the 166,750 acres no sooner than 2042, taking about twice as long as it took the Corps to cause the damage while constructing the nine-foot navigation channel in the first place.

Figure 3.1: New side channel at Jameson Island in the Missouri River Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service

A reasonable estimate of the value to the public of the reconnected 166,750 acres would be about $1.67 billion each year. With most of this land currently planted in corn and soybeans its public value is minimal at best. When all of the impacts of industrialized row crop production are considered, it is likely a negative value to the public.

After the 2011 flood, special interest-influenced Missouri legislators managed to reduce Missouri River Recovery Program (MRRP) funding by about $22 million; defunded an important restoration component of the Program; and defunded a study that would evaluate the original “Authorized Purposes” of our use of the river (it’s hard to find a more anthropocentric term) established 70 years ago when the world was significantly different. Funding for the MRRP was cut by more than $12 million in 2014 and it appears that an additional $10 million cut will occur in 2015.

Congress needs to stop allowing special interests to undermine the public process and restore funding for these essential activities. Congress also needs to direct the Corps to step up the procurement of floodplain land so that we can complete the restoration process in a decade, allowing for a much more focused purchasing of tracts of land in the best locations and in non-fragmented sections.

Upper Mississippi River (UMR) and Illinois River Restoration

It had become obvious by the early 1980’s that both the UMR and Illinois River were seriously degraded, primarily because of the navigation system and hundreds of miles of agricultural levees. In the 1986 WRDA Congress established the Upper Mississippi River Environmental Management Program (EMP), which we chronicle in our Melvin Price history article.

EMP was the country’s first large river restoration program and was created to learn how to restore the UMR and Illinois River to healthier conditions. Since then, over $450 million has been spent learning the best restoration practices through construction of over 70 projects within and along both rivers. Successes have been achieved, but the EMP was never intended to be the program to actually complete the restoration.

Billions of dollars are needed and a sizeable portion was authorized in the 2007 WRDA. Unfortunately, and ironically as well, Congress tied a $1.7 billion restoration program to a $2.2 billion expansion of the navigation system. The funding for the lock expansion project is shared with the barge industry who currently contributes a paltry $85 million a year for their share of all navigation construction projects, which is woefully inadequate to fund their wish list.

Rail vs BargeThis lack of funding (which industry has caused) is the excuse the navigation industry gives for the lack of appropriations for the navigation expansion, and by association the restoration work, on the UMR and the Illinois River.

However, the Corps’ own study (page 17) shows that the proposed new locks are not economically justified. So, since about 2011 when all funding for the unnecessary navigation project was halted, the expanded restoration program has been held hostage.

Congress needs to separate these two projects, which will allow the restoration work to proceed at levels several times those seen with the EMP. Separation will also allow for floodplain reconnection on tens of thousands of acres, especially in the area between the Quad Cities and the confluence with the Ohio River, through either outright purchase of land or the purchase of permanent easements.

Part 4 will discuss some of our thoughts on solving our river problems.

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