The Nefarious Connection Between Agriculture and Our Rivers (Part 1 of 4)

This is a 4-part article as written by Brad Walker, Rivers & Sustainability Director for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment (bio below). I provided the illustrations and a few other minor contributions. The article will run one part per week for the next four weeks.

Part 1: Introduction — What we have wrought on our Midwestern rivers

Row crop agriculture has always been intricately tied to the promotion of barge navigation on our large Midwestern rivers, primarily for exporting corn, wheat and more recently soybeans. Agricultural interests were heavy promoters pushing to change our rivers into barge canals and to this day continue to lobby for expansions of the system.

Because none of our rivers are deep enough for their full lengths for the minimum nine-foot drafts required for towboats used, especially during low flow periods, engineers called for alterations on an unprecedented scale to create an adequate channel depth and width for these over-sized barges. Conveniently, the river alterations actually reinforced the connection with agriculture by easing the conversion of floodplains to cropland, in some locations creating new land that was immediately placed into agriculture.

On the Missouri River this involved constructing massive dams upstream and then shortening, straightening and narrowing the lower portion of the river to the point that it has little resemblance to the original river. About 522,000 acres of floodplain and riverine habitat were lost through the process of constructing a nine-foot channel; all of that acreage altered and much of it, as well as land along the river created by the process, became levee-protected corn and soybean fields.

agriculture Rivers and Roads3color3 SMALL

Congress authorized the US Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) to channelize the river several times. The final iteration of this process is called the Bank Stabilization and Navigation Project began in the early 1950s and was completed about 1981, paid for by taxpayer funding. Massive impacts to river habitats have resulted.

Much the same has occurred in the Upper Mississippi River (UMR) and Illinois River from the construction of the nine-foot channel there. In the areas north of St. Louis where the rivers are not consistently deep enough they were impounded with locks, which are low-head type dams constructed solely for navigation purposes creating pools rather than flowing rivers (See Figure 2).

Figure 2: Upper Mississippi River Navigation Lock and Dam 24 Source: Brad Walker
Figure 2: Upper Mississippi River Navigation Lock and Dam 24 Source: Brad Walker

The alterations constructed below St. Louis in the Mississippi River were much the same as Those built within the Missouri River. Again, the floodplains were the site of large losses of natural habitat, and remaining floodplains were turned into flattened monoculture-row crop landscapes protected from the river by levees. On all three rivers where the floodplains have been disconnected from the river through levees and where navigation structures such as wing dikes and chevrons (See Figure 3) have been constructed indications are the floods levels have significantly increased, potentially by 10 feet or more. In all regards, this river alteration process was taxpayer funded for the benefit of a small group of special interests claiming that all Americans would benefit.

Figure 3: Wing dikes narrowing the river channel and creating new land Source: US Army Corps of Engineers
Figure 3: Wing dikes narrowing the river channel and creating new land Source: US Army Corps of Engineers

The loss of these large tracts of floodplains, and the wetlands contained within them, has had a huge negative impact upon the ability of the rivers to function properly.These Midwestern floodplain rivers are now unfortunately welfare-assisted barge canals. But of even more concern than that is the loss of their floodplains. As a result, floods have become worse because wetland flood storage is reduced, pollution absorbing capabilities were lost, recreational opportunities are significantly lessened or changed, major flyways have disappeared or been appreciably reduced, and the game and fish once plentiful were drastically impacted. There has been no equitable replacement of these lost ecosystem services (and there are others as well not listed here).

Other enlightened countries are either considering or actually beginning to return their rivers to a more natural state recognizing the benefits to the public will far outweigh the reduced private gains. In England groups are trying to provide incentives to farmers for retaining flood waters on their land and adding meanders back into streams. The Dutch, considered by many to be the world’s experts in flood control, are already “making room for the rivers” by reconnecting rivers to their floodplains and abandoning the philosophy of building ever higher levees.

Part 2 will discuss the major culprit.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Brad Walker is the Rivers & Sustainability Director for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. Prior to his work in the conservation and environmental sector, Brad worked for over 20 years in the construction industry, primarily performing construction management for large wastewater treatment plants in the western US. Beginning in 1998 Brad spent two years in Jamaica working for the US Peace Corps. He worked for 2-1/2 years with American Farm Land Trust in northern Illinois organizing county-level farmland protection programs and then moved to river-related advocacy. He was the Upper Mississippi River (UMR) Restoration Coordinator for Prairie Rivers Network in Illinois from 2006 until 2008 and the Izaak Walton League of America’s UMR Coordinator until May 2011. Brad has a B.S in Civil Engineering and a M.A. in Geography.

1 thought on “The Nefarious Connection Between Agriculture and Our Rivers (Part 1 of 4)”

  1. Thanks for providing this detailed series on a topic that is little understood by people like me who want to get a better handle on the importance of sustainability initiatives to help preserve water resources.

    Once this series is done running, is there a chance that Brad or Joe can address the current controversy regarding the EPA proposed rule clarifying protection under the Clean Water Act for streams and wetlands (

    There has been a full-court press on the part of the conservative media world and GOP talking heads universally attacking this rule as a “land-grab” and “regulatory overreach” on the agriculture sector. While I don’t swallow these claims at all, it is more difficult to determine the exact economic advantage that they are angling for other than the usual instinctive recoiling at any attempt at federal regulation. Or is it nothing more complicated than the standard operating procedure of privatizing gains and socializing the costs?

    I need assistance wading into the weeds here…

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top