01 October 2009

Study to Evaluate Authorized Purposes of Missouri River

A five-year study to evaluate authorized uses of the Missouri River has just started a review of original project purposes and to determine if any changes are appropriate.

The Missouri River Authorized Purposes Study (MRAPS) is being conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and will start with two public listening session meetings, one at Pierre, South Dakota on October 1st - the project "kickoff" - and the second at Kansas City on October 8th.

The study was originated due to legislation enacted by Senator Byron L. Dorgan, of North Dakota, a proponent of a greater emphasis on recreation along the river and its reservoirs.

A timeline for the study indicates there will be three phases:

1) Six months to one year to listen to input from interested parties, and further define the scope of the study and its management plan
2) Two years to analyze existing conditions and to forecast expected future situations
3) Two years to determine alternatives, analyze trade-offs under potential alternatives, and to formulate and review a final report.

Project purposes currently authorized for the Missouri River - the longest river in the United States the named river originates at Three Forks, Montana and continuing for 2321 miles to its confluence with the Mississippi River at St. Louis. From its utmost source at Browers Spring on Hell Roaring Creek in Montana it is 2619 miles to its confluence - are flood control, navigation, irrigation, power, water supply, water quality control, recreation, and fish and wildlife.

This will be the first-ever evaluation of authorized river purposes, according to Lynn Heng, a co-leader of the study. It has been 65 years since 1944, when flood control was authorized by the Flood Control Act and 64 years when a 9' feet and 300' wide navigation channel was authorized by the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1945 up to Sioux City, Iowa.

The MRAPS is expected to provide an updated rationale for authorized project purposes, based on comments and input from stakeholders spread across ten states, including American Indian tribes, concerned citizens and federal agencies. Canada also may be involved, as a small portion of the Missouri River basin extends into that country.

Uses of the Missouri River and its local environs are currently undergoing dramatic changes in comparison to historic conditions when certain usage was more prevalent. The most recent document which defines river operation and management for the Corps of Engineers, is the "Master Water Control Manual" issued in March 2004.

One authorized use - navigation, for example - has shown a decline recently.

A drought from 2000-2008 reduced the tonnage a barge could transport, said John R. LaRandeau of the Corps Northwestern Division office, as there was a lesser amount of water in the navigation channel.

Most of the navigation along the river channel is to transport commodities, especially from Kansas City to the river's mouth at St. Louis. There is significant sand and gravel mined in the river that is also transported by barges. These barges however only move 1-5 miles to shore facilities.

"The navigation mission has been a tough one for the last few seasons," LaRandeau said.

Material transported other than sand and gravel includes asphalt, cement and agriculture and fertilizer products, he said. Corn, which had formerly been carried downriver for export, is not being moved to the same extent as in the past, as it is instead being used locally to produce ethanol fuel.

Since 2004, there has not been any barge traffic above Blair, Nebraska where a local business has carried compressed alfalfa pellets downriver each season, LaRandeau indicated. Above KC, there are about 5-6 barge trips during the typical eight-month navigation season. Each trip to Blair generally involves a towboat and typically four barges. At Nebraska City, there have been a couple of barges delivered in recent years. The Kinder Morgan port in Omaha has also received a couple of barges. The Omaha Port is now gone due to development of the riverfront for other purposes

One unique value of a readily usable means of river navigation, was apparent in 2004, when 30 barges were used to carry power plant equipment valued at $425 million, and built in Japan, to the site of an energy plant being built by Mid-America Energy south of Council Bluffs, Iowa, LaRandeau said. Being able to ship equipment on the river allowed the power plant to install equipment that could generate 795 megawatts, compared to 600 mw if the heavy equipment had to be shipped overland by trucks.

Navigation continues to generate $9.3 million in annual economic benefits, according to figures provided by the Corps.

In comparison, recreation generates $87 million of which $20 million of that is for recreation benefits downstream of Gavins Point Dam along the Recreation River and within the navigation project. Power generation - based on creating 10 billion kilowatts per year, which is apparently enough to power the whole state of Nebraska - has a benefit of about $680 million annually.

Additional economic benefits are derived from each of the authorized uses, and the relative importance of each will be evaluated.

The end product of the MRAPS study is a "comprehensive feasibility-type report and environmental impact study" for presentation to Congress, according to a summary sheet for the project. The report will summarize findings from the study process and present recommendations.

Although there is only a very limited amount of information at the study website information will be updated regularly, according to a Corps' official.

The MRAPS is being coordinated by the Corps' officials from the Omaha District and Kansas City district. Authorization for the $25 million study was provided by the Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2009, Title 1, Section 108.

Corps of Engineers involvement with management of the Missouri River and its channel originated more than 175 years ago, when hearty explorers were using the natural waterway as a "road" to forts and small settlements on the western frontier. The first explorers used small craft, but as the methods of traveling on water improved, steamboats came to the forefront and for a long time were the primary means to get to burgeoning river towns.

There were several legislative enactments that established and continued the Corps of Engineer's role with management of the river.

Since the Supreme Court’s 1824 decision in Gibbons v. Ogden the commerce clause has been firmly linked to navigable water providing the federal government regulating power of the nations waterways. This idea of "navigation servitude" was in place when the Missouri River became an important highway for the associated steamboat travel and the evolving military importance of transporting troops and supplies along the river. The Missouri River was the primary rapid route to the western frontier.

In 1832, the Corps' was given the task to remove snags from the channel in order to improve conditions for steamboat traffic. Numerous snags - hidden or otherwise - were a primary threat to riverine travel and could quickly pierce the hull of a boat, sending it to the depths of the river's water. There is a multitude of sunken boats in the annals of history for the river. One prominent demise, was the steamboat Bertrand, with its history known from the findings of an excavation which are currently housed in a museum at DeSoto NWR.

"The year 1832 marks the advent of active government interest in Missouri River navigation. On 3 July 1832 Congress authorized channel improvements on the Missouri River. These improvements consisted mainly of snag removal, but the limitations of their efforts can be measured by their total cost of $49,335.53 in 14 years. In 1852 an appropriation for channel improvement on the Missouri came to $40,000. In 1868, another appropriation amounted to $25,000. Both of these appropriations were to be used on the reach from Kansas City to the mouth. In 1875, $25,000 was appropriated for the Kansas City to Sioux City channel and $20,000 for the river above Sioux City. The removal of snags was the primary maintenance activity until approximately 1878, when other channel improvements were implemented. However, in addition to navigation irrigation became a consideration for river improvement with the passage of the Desert Land Act of 1877, of which the Dakota Territory was included.”

From 1894 to 1902 Congress established a Missouri River Commission removing the Corps as the sole federal responsibility for the Missouri River improvements. One of their primary tasks was the survey and mapping of the river. In the early 1890s, a complete volume was published that shows in detail the river channel and associated features, including towns, landscape features and other notables.

A Rivers and Harbors Act enacted in 1912 authorized that a six foot depth navigation channel be established from Kansas City to the mouth of the river. Other legislation passed for the Missouri River Bank Stabilization and Navigation Project, was:

  • July 25, 1912 – 6 feet depth from Kansas City to the river's mouth
  • August 8, 1917 – Extended to Quindaro Bend, near Kansas City
  • March 3, 1925 – 200 feet wide Kansas City to mouth
  • January 21, 1927 – Extended to Sioux City
  • March 2, 1945 – 9 feet deep by 300 feet wide channel

The first "modern" instance of a boat navigating the river to Omaha was mid-August 1930, when the Arthur S arrived with two barges for the Nebraska-Iowa Sand and Gravel Company, according to a news article.

Although a preeminent historic aspect of the river was transportation from St. Louis upriver to many places along the entire distance to Ft. Benton, the Flood Control Act brought a dramatic halt to this means of transportation. The final instance for any boats navigating the entire distance occurred in late-May through June, 1937, when four cruisers raced from St. Louis to Fort Benton, according to a news article.

Special thanks is given to staff of the Corps of Engineers for providing details on the history of the Missouri River.

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