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Environmentalists Oppose Hawley’s Bill To Stop Protection of Missouri River Wildlife

Roger Ideker's farm in St. Joseph, Mo. during the 2011 Missouri River flood. Ideker is the lead plaintiff in the suit against the corps.
Ideker Farms

U.S. Sens. Josh Hawley and Roy Blunt want the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to stop focusing on protecting wildlife in the Missouri River and instead focus on flood control and navigation, a move that environmentalists are calling misguided.

In 2004, the Corps of Engineers changed its management strategy for the Missouri River to protect two endangered species of birds and one fish, the pallid sturgeon. However, landowners near the river have alleged that prioritizing wildlife over flood protection has caused them extensive property damage from major floods.

A bill filed by the two Republican senators ignores the important role wildlife restoration can serve in reducing floods along the Missouri River, said Washington University geologist Bob Criss.

“The birds, the sandbars, the islands and the wide river are what’s protecting people,” Criss said.

Creating channels for barges, building levees, dams and other hard structures have constricted the river, he added. Criss reported in the Journal of Earth Science in 2016 that man-made changes to major rivers have increased flooding in the Midwest.

In a speech on Wednesday, Blunt said the Corps’ tactics were ineffective at protecting wildlife and have contributed to multiple major floods in the last 15 years.

“The Fish and Wildlife and Corps of Engineers actually now know that some of the actions they were taking caused direct negative impacts on the river and didn’t do any good,” Blunt said.

Criss also criticized the senators’ call to make navigation a priority on the Missouri River. It is not a viable channel for navigation and there are virtually no barges on the river, he said.

“In 25 years of studying the Missouri River, I’ve only seen a barge on it once,” Criss said. “It was in the last year or so. I nearly fell out of my boat when I saw it.”

Last year, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims found that the Corps of Engineers was responsible for property damages a group of farmers suffered from the 2011 flood along the Missouri River. In a lawsuit, the farmers blamed the damages on the Corps’ management of the river for wildlife protection.

Many farmers along the Missouri River also experienced flooded homes and ruined crops due to record-breaking floods this spring. There needs to be changes to the way the Corps manages the river, but Hawley’s legislation may not exactly be the right approach, said Richard Oswald, president of the Missouri Farmers Union.

“I don’t know if I want to see that bill passed. I appreciate the conversation it’s going to spark,” said Oswald, a farmer from Langdon, Missouri. “I don’t know if making levees taller are going to help. Making the levees taller will make deeper floods.”

The Army Corps of Engineers has long struggled to balance the need to accommodate the navigation industry, restore wildlife and natural areas, and protect communities from floods. Treating each of these needs as if they’re competing with each other has been problematic, said Maisah Khan, water policy coordinator for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.

“Unfortunately I do think that the narrative we’re using in this situation to say we are putting people in danger because we’ve managed the system for wildlife, that misses an opportunity to consider co-benefits of managing with natural infrastructure that not only protects the communities, not only creates room for the river, but also decreases the [flood] risk,” Khan said.

Khan wants to see the Corps put more effort into restoring areas that the Missouri River naturally flowed into in times of high water.

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Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.