The Army Corps of Engineers this week began shutting flow from a Missouri River reservoir that feeds the Mississippi River, setting up a showdown between the rivers.
The 2012 drought is dropping levels in both rivers. The Corps decided to slow water release Monday at Gavins Point Dam in Yankton, S.D., and conserve for the next Missouri River shipping season.
But the Mississippi River below St. Louis needs that Missouri River water right now to keep the shipping channel at least nine-feet deep. That same drought is expected to drop Mississippi River levels below the Corps’ guaranteed 9-foot level by Dec. 10.
So the Corps’ decision to protect Missouri River commerce next year is shutting down Mississippi River commerce this year.
But it gets worse.
North Dakota leaders are eager to tap Missouri River reservoirs for the state’s oil fracking boom. Forcing oil from beneath North Dakota requires hundreds of millions of gallons of water. North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple says he will contest any Corps plan to restrict oil companies from using that water.
So the Corps seems willing to manage the Missouri River to the detriment of Mississippi River shippers, even as North Dakota gives away water the Corps believes will be needed for navigation on both rivers.
The Corps came under fire in 2011 for lifting some Missouri River dam gates to relieve full reservoirs, but increase downriver flooding.
Meanwhile in the Quad-Cities, the Corps insists it never manages the Mississippi River levels for flood control.
These conflicting river uses and the Corps’ different priorities for each river set up collision courses for those who live along the rivers and businesses that rely on it. Consequently, we’re facing a possible scenario where grain shipments from one part of America are stopped to protect future grain shipments in another part of the country.
Both of those conflicting Corps plans seem to be at the mercy of state officials giving away valuable water for important domestic energy production.
From our Mississippi River bank viewpoint, we can’t begin to pick priorities. That’s why middle America needs a river management plan drawn up to reflect interests of all parties. These are America’s rivers, vital in different ways to different communities.
Those conflicting uses should be managed under a comprehensive plan, not pitted against each other in times of crises, particularly crises caused by conflicting plans.
The Missouri River water retention decision may precipitate a crisis Dec. 10 if the lower Mississippi River drops below 9 feet south of St. Louis. Reuters reports that futures bids and shipping costs already are spiking on suspicions the river may close.
A slowdown of Midwest grain would then spike export prices, which will affect demand, future prices and ultimately, spring planting decisions.
We can pretend these rivers function independently, but the rivers know better.