Muddying the Big Muddy

As if dams and channelization weren't intruding enough on the Missouri River, a quartet of Missouri politicos want to strip fish and wildlife from the management goals of the Corps of Engineers.

According to the misanthropic Missourians, the periodic problems of the river are the direct result of protecting endangered species. As if birds and fish cause flooding, destroy levees, and make the river unsafe for barge traffic.

"The Corps should not have to waste precious resources on building wildlife habitats," Rep. Sam Graves said. Graves and three of his buddies have introduced a bill that would eliminate fish and wildlife concerns from the Corps of Engineers management of the river. They maintain the Corps should focus solely on navigation and flood control.

If you narrow a river it forces water into a constricted channel, increasing the force and depth and setting the table for historic floods to breach levees. A series of dams on the upper Missouri theoretically provide water storage to allow a measured downstream flow, except in 2011 when a huge snowpack melted into reservoirs, followed by heavy spring rains. The Corps had the option of watching its dams wash out or releasing a tidal wave of water and cause flood damage, which is exactly what happened.

Graves was joined in his bill by Reps. Blaine Luetkemeyer, Vicki Hartzler and Billy Long. Hartzler, said, "While preserving wildlife habitat is important, we cannot allow these narrow interests to take precedence over the lives and activities of farmers, businesses and residents on or near the river." That's just simple-minded.

All the Corps work for 100 years, which was mainly to benefit a barge industry (speaking of narrow interests) that never has come close to paying for itself, did absolutely nothing to prevent the devastating floods of '93 and '95. Many landowners where driven out by the high water, and federal and state governments acquired (from willing sellers) the nucleus of the Big Muddy NWR and several state conservation areas.

Those areas are a bonanza for waterfowl, as well as indigenous wildlife, adding thousands of acres of self-maintaining habitat. I've duck hunted on the Missouri, canoed it and dove hunted in nearby fields. The Katy Trail, a rails-to-trails treasure for hikers and cyclists, parallels the river, and there are strings of wineries that attract many tourists. Old friend George Fleener, a retired biologist with the state's conservation department, once did a usage study of the river and found outdoorsman rely on it heavily, from hunting and fishing to gathering mushrooms. In the 1970s, conservationists managed to convince the Corps to breach wing dikes, allowing the current to scour out eddy pools for fish habitat. These types of benefits will suffer if the Graves Gang gets its way.

Floods are least damaging when allowed to spread softly, without the scouring fire hose effect of a channeled river. Levees are a stop-gap measure, as the Corps found on the Mississippi in 2011 when it had to breach a pair of Missouri levees. The blown levee flooded some 200-square miles of Missouri bottomland to help mitigate the flood. It also showed man's intrusion is inevitably squashed by a far greater power.

Graves has voted against everything remotely connected with conservation and the environment. The highest percentage he's received from the League of Conservation voters was 10. Last year, it was three.

Hartzler has a 10 percent LCV rating, and Luetkemeyer has a seven.

Project Vote Smart, a group that tries to pin down candidates on issues so voters can make intelligent choices, says this: "Blaine Luetkemeyer refused to tell citizens where he stands on any of the issues addressed in the 2012 Political Courage Test, despite repeated requests from Vote Smart, national media, and prominent political leaders."

The Missouri is not a vital resource for transportation of farm goods as barges only carry an annual average of 1.5 million tons of goods, compared to nearly 100 million tons on the Mississippi.

According to the Corps, the Missouri provides less than $10 million for farm interests annually, compared to $1.3 billion from other sources, including recreation.

You'd think efforts to maximize and encourage recreation and tourism on the Big Muddy would be an intelligent use of legislative time.

But that would take conscientious legislators.

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