The U.S. Corps of Engineers has been responsible for “developing” the Mississippi River Basin’s rivers since the early 1800s when Congress directed them to do surveys and remove snags within the river channel.
To improve navigation safety and efficiency by the 1860s the Corps of Engineers was blasting out river rapids at several locations and constructing wing dams or dikes along the river bank to narrow the river channel in order to increase flow speed and water depth. These types of river projects continued into the 1930s.
By the 1930s large-scale dam construction on both the Upper Mississippi (UMR) and Missouri Rivers was becoming the primary activity for the Corps of Engineers, though with different objectives on each river. The 26 dams on the UMR, built in the 1940s, are low-head dams built solely for the operation of adjacent locks for navigation. There are also three dams that both generate electricity and have navigation locks.
The six Missouri River dams, started in 1933 and completed in 1964, were built primarily through the Pick-Sloan Program, a Bureau of Reclamation and Corps of Engineers compromise for developing the Missouri River. The dams are located in the upper portion of the Missouri River and were built primarily to store water for hydroelectric power generation, irrigation and recreational uses. The dams do release water to support navigation but the volume of barge traffic is so low on the Missouri River that it is difficult to justify the millions of taxpayer dollars spent each year supporting it.
In 1986, the Corps of Engineers received a new mission within the basin, ecosystem restoration. The 1986 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) created the Environmental Management Program (EMP) dedicated to developing restoration projects within the Upper Mississippi River:
“To ensure the coordinated development and enhancement of the Upper Mississippi River system, it is hereby declared to be the intent of Congress to recognize that system as a nationally significant ecosystem and a nationally significant commercial navigation system. Congress further recognizes that the system provides a diversity of opportunities and experiences. The system shall be administered and regulated in recognition of its several purposes.”
EMP contains two subprograms:
- Habitat Rehabilitation and Enhancement Projects (HREP) – development, design, and construction of restoration projects
- Long Term Resource Monitoring Program (LTRMP) – data gathering and monitoring of constructed projects and the river environment
It is important to note that EMP was part of a Congressional compromise to a lawsuit filed in the early 1970s by conservation and environmental nonprofits and railroad companies to stop the construction of the Melvin Price locks & dam. The existing Alton Dam was failing and the Corps of Engineers attempted to push through a proposed new replacement dam with two 1,200-foot locks to replace the existing single 600-foot lock. Ultimately one 1,200-foot and one 600-foot locks were constructed. The 1986 WRDA also “provide(d) general authority to determine the need for environmental improvements on the Upper Mississippi River System”, in other words a comprehensive master plan for the river.
For most of the last two decades the Corps of Engineers has pushed again for more new locks on the UMR through their Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program (NESP). For detailed information on this program refer to the Nicollet Island Coalition Report: Big Price — Little Benefit: Proposed Locks on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois Rivers Are Not Economically Viable
Restoration efforts have been ongoing within the Missouri River as well. Since about 2000 the Corps of Engineers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been working on the Missouri River Recovery Program (MRRP), whose mission is to
“Implement actions to accomplish Missouri River ecosystem recovery goals in coordination and collaboration with agency partners and stakeholders.”
Though often couched in terms of recovering three endangered species the program’s success is actually dependent upon restoring significant portions of the 3 million acres of altered river habitat. The primary alterations have been the conversion of floodplains to other land uses – mainly agriculture – and the infrastructure constructed along and within the river including levees and navigation structures.
The 2007 WRDA authorized a study of the river called the Missouri River Ecosystem Restoration Plan (MRERP) and an associated Environmental Impact Statement will identify what needs to be done on the river to:
- mitigate losses of aquatic and terrestrial habitat;
- recover federally listed species under the Endangered Species Act; and
- restore the ecosystem to prevent further declines among other native species.
This is a 30 to 50 year process and progress on the process can be seen at the program’s Corps of Engineers website.
A third program, the Missouri River Authorized Purposes Study (MRAPS) was begun in 2009 to review the river’s eight authorized purposes established in the Flood Control Act of 1944.