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  • June 27th, 2017

MUDDYING THE BIG MUDDY

By Joel M. Vance

It’s the longest river in the United States and if the Mississippi River is the Father of Waters, the Missouri can lay claim to being the Father of the Father. Which came first—the upper Mississippi or the upper Missouri? And who really cares? What’s important is that this great river that spans much of the West and Midwest is an abused and battered child and the outrages never seem to cease.
As if dams and channelization weren’t intrusion enough, now a pair of Missouri Congresspeople want to strip fish and wildlife concerns from the management goals of the Corps of Engineers (which no doubt would be just as happy to get rid of those toilsome chores.
According to the misanthropic Missourians, the periodic problems of the river are the direct result of protecting endangered species, like the pallid sturgeon and least tern. Obviously birds and fish are causing flooding, destroying levees, making the Missouri River unsafe for barge traffic.
Consequently Rep. Sam Graves and three buddies last year introduced a bill that would eliminate fish and wildlife concerns from the Corps of Engineers management of the river. His cohort in crime, Blaine Luetkemeyer, who happens to be the representative from my home district, unfortunately, has introduced a bill which basically is a Trojan horse into the endangered species act. A paranoid type like me can see the intent of both of those bills to gut environmental regulations and destroy what morally endowed humans should cherish. But ethical and moral concerns never seem to figure in the self-serving and devious motives of today’s politicians.
That’s the kind of thinking, if you can dignify it by calling it “thinking”, that has Congress with an approval rating somewhere near zero. “The Corps should not have to waste precious resources on building wildlife habitats,” Graves said. He is right on one point when he said the Corps is not suited for wildlife work—the Corps and its various projects have been about as friendly to wildlife as a cat is to a cornered mouse.
Graves and his band of environmental brigands maintained that the Corps should concentrate on navigation and flood control and forget about wildlife—the bill would, he maintains, reduce flooding. Flooding on the Missouri is almost as traditional in its namesake state as mules, molasses and moonshine The river epitomizes the famous Harvard Law of Animal Behavior that is translated as: “under carefully controlled conditions, organisms do as they damn well please.” And so do rivers.
Luetkemeyer’s bill would give the governors of states regulatory authority over endangered species, which is akin to giving the aforementioned cat the authority to kill whatever it wants, birds as well as mice– or more appropriately, in a country ruled by Republican governors, loosing a band of foxes in the environmental chickenhouse.
The Missouri has been flooding for thousands of years, long before man thought he could tame it with dams and channel work and long before Congress came along to muddy the water. The roiling river, spilling into the Mississippi near what became St. Louis, scared the crap out of Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet in the 1600s. But it would be the highway West when Lewis and Clark explored to the Pacific Ocean, and it carried other luminaries like John James Audubon and artist George Catlin on pioneering voyages. It was benign until it wasn’t.
Hark back to 1951 when a flood of epic proportions flooded the Missouri and caused huge damage—all before anyone thought of fish and wildlife enhancement and before the Corps was tasked with helping undo the damage they were inflicting on the Missouri River. It stands to reason (a concept that eludes the Graves gang) that if you narrow a river it forces a given amount of water into a constricted channel, increasing the force of the water and setting the table for historic-proportion floods to overtop the levees you have built to hold the water in so you can float barges without worrying about low water.
A series of dams on the upper Missouri theoretically provide water storage to allow a measured downstream flow. Except when, as happened in 2011, there is a huge snowpack melting into those reservoirs, coupled with heavy spring rains. Then the Corps has the option of watching its dams wash out or releasing a tidal wave of water to do exactly what happened—overtop levees and cause flood damage. In other words, the operation was a success but the patient died.
Graves was joined in his idiot bill by Reps. Blaine Luetkemeyer (remember him—my own representative who when you try to call his office to complain about something, gives you a ride around that is bound to drive a conscientious constituent to total insanity and incoherent rage), Vicki Hartzler and Billy Long. Hartzler, among my least favorite legislators, said this: “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.” So if you discount fish and wildlife habitat as a concern, all will be well with those who choose to live and farm in a flood plain. That’s just simple-minded. All the Corps work of 100 years, which was mainly to benefit a barge industry (speaking of narrow interests) which never has come close to paying for itself, did absolutely nothing to prevent huge floods in 1993 and 1995. Those bluff to bluff floods drove many landowners out of the bottoms and as a result the federal and state governments acquired (from willing sellers) the nucleus of the Big Muddy National Wildlife Refuge and several state conservation areas.
Those areas are a bonanza for waterfowl, as well as for indigenous wildlife, adding thousands of acres of self-maintaining habitat. I’ve duck hunted on the Missouri, dove hunted in riverside fields, canoed on it in low water. An old friend, the late George Fleener, a biologist with the Missouri Conservation Department, once did a use study of the river and found heavy usage all the way from hunting and fishing to gathering mushrooms and, for which he was mercilessly kidded, “spooning.”
Once I chased jugs downriver with some buddies and we collected a couple of catfish. In the 1970s, conservationists managed to convince the Corps to breech wing dikes to allow the current to scour out eddy pools for fish habitat—that type of beneficial management, of course, would die if the Graves Gang gets its way.
A flood is at its least damaging when it is allowed to spread out, softly and without the scouring firehose effect of a channelized river. Levees are a stopgap measure, as the Corps found on the Mississippi River in 2011 when it had to breach a southeast Missouri levee at Birds Point and another at New Madrid. The blown levee flooded some 200 square miles of Missouri bottomland and did help mitigate the flood. But it also made the point that man’s intrusion into nature inevitably gets squashed by a far greater power. All the bulldozers and dredges and implements of the river manipulators pale when nature decides to declare a flood.
As Gomer Pyle would say, Su’prise! Su’prise!” Sam Graves has the dishonor to be one of Congress’s Dirty Dozen, selected by the League of Conservation Voters. He has voted against everything even remotely connected with conservation and the environment. The highest percentage he’s ever gotten for favorable environmental votes was 10 percent. Last year it was three percent.
Hartzler is taking time out from her favorite sport of gay bashing to help her buddy bash some endangered species but, with a 10 percent LCV rating, she’s a virtual tree hugger compared to Graves. Lutkemeyer has a seven percent rating from the LCV, and is widely regarded as a mouthpiece for Big Oil (along with his fellow Missouri politician Senator Roy Blunt). 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.”
But by golly he finally is taking a stand. He’s opposed to those damn fish! Way to go, Blaine!
And then there’s Billy Long, the last member of the quartet (if they were a barbershop quartet, they’d be singing “Ain’t Nobody’s Business But Our Own”). Apparently he’s shooting for Graves’s dismal LCV overall rating. He’s at three percent equivalent to Graves’s three percent. They have a ways to go among Missouri’s political hacks—Blunt is at two percent LCV rating and thus can claim credit as Missouri’s most Neanderthal environmental legislator—for the time being.
I’m ashamed to be from a beautiful, diverse state with the nation’s best, most progressive conservation program that consistently elects shambling knuckledraggers like this quartet of thumb-suckers. The Missouri River in its namesake state is a priceless resource, not the least of which is its recreation, wildlife and environmental value. The idea that the Missouri is vital for transportation of farm goods is a fiction. Missouri River barges carry an annual average of 1.5 million tons of goods, compared to nearly 100 million tons on the Mississippi River. The Missouri ships less than two percent of the grain from Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri. And according to the Corps itself, the Missouri provides annual economic benefits of less than $10 million for farm interests, compared to $1.3 billion from other sources, including recreation (of course you can legitimately argue that the Corps, when it lacks provable data, simply makes it up).
. Aside from the river itself, a fine canoe float when the water is low, there is associated recreation along the river. The Katy Trail, a rails-to-trails treasure for hikers and bicyclists parallels the River for much of its length, and there is a string of Missouri River wineries that attract many tourists. Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area is unique in the state and a leader nationally for using wastewater from Columbia to flood its wetlands, benefiting ducks, hunters, Columbia and the River.
You’d think that efforts to maximize and encourage recreation and tourism on the Big Muddy instead of discouraging it in favor of special and destructive interests would be an intelligent use of legislative time.
But that would take intelligent legislators. Don’t hold your breath.
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