Missouri River Plan Hurt Local Residents

In an effort to protect endangered birds and fish, a federal judge restricted the amount of dammed water allowed to flow into the Missouri River. As a result, water levels became too shallow for regional farmers to ship goods by barge, forcing them to use more costly transportation alternatives.

Missouri River Plan Hurt Local Residents

Citing the need for lower water levels to protect the endangered Least Tern, Piping Plover and Pallid Sturgeon, a coalition of environmental groups sued the government to restrict the amount of dammed water that would be permitted to flow into the Missouri River.

Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon, commenting on the region’s economic reliance on the river, noted that “water for Missouri is like blood for our bodies; the flow of the Missouri River helps keep our economy alive.”

Though she acknowledged the economic hardship that would result, a federal judge ruled the well-being of these protected birds and fish outweighed human concerns.

Noting, “there is no dollar value that can be placed on the extinction of an animal species,” U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Judge Gladys Kessler ordered a reluctant U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reduce the flow of the Missouri River beginning in July of 2003. While the Corps initially refused to obey the order and was cited in contempt of court, Kessler’s decision was later sustained on appeal and water levels were dropped in August.

Almost immediately, the reduction in flow caused the river level in Kansas City, Missouri to fall by six feet. This virtually eliminated the ability of barges to operate on the Missouri River and forced local farmers to seek more costly alternatives, such as air, rail and road, to transport their products. Transporting goods by barge makes good economic sense for farmers. An average 15-ton barge can carry the equivalent of 870 truck payloads.

In the spring of 2004, towing companies normally serving Sioux City, Iowa announced they would not be able to deliver the 50 to 60 regular bargeloads of fertilizer due to uncertain river depths. Big Soo Terminal manager Kevin Knepper lamented: “We have lost our spring and the most profitable season. It’s just too late to get up and running and make any money… [W]e’re [now] concerned the rail industry will not be able to service the additional tonnage that we’re going to need to move this spring.”

As a result of a diminished Missouri River, pollution and other environmental harm became an unintended and pressing concern for the region. Nixon predicted “the increased congestion and air pollution stemming from the loss of river transportation [will] be immense.” Within weeks of the river dropping to levels not seen since the dustbowl era, water temperature rose to a point nearly exceeding Missouri water quality standards.

Although Kessler’s decision in 2003 had been upheld, a different federal judge assigned to the river litigation has since ruled differently. In June 2004, U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson in Minneapolis ruled in favor of the Corps and blocked the contempt citation.

Sources: Associated Press (June 21, 2004; February 17, 2005; May 25, 2005), Sioux City Journal (February 28, 2004)

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