The Missouri River and its tributaries are a dominate force in the continental U.S. The Missouri is the longest river in the America. Hundreds of streams running through 10 states contribute to its flow. When it merges with the Mississippi at St. Louis, the Missouri carries more water. There are those who say that if America had been settled from the West to the East (instead of the other way around) explorers would have “discovered” and named the Missouri first, and the Mississippi River would be a tributary of the Missouri.
Until very recently, the Missouri was a sprawling river, wide and shallow, carrying huge amounts of sediment with it. Periodically, it would flood, drenching farms and towns along its banks, displacing thousands and depositing fresh topsoil along its banks.
In the middle of the war, 1943 was a particularly bad flood year. Record snowfalls upstream began melting in April. By the time all the water reached Omaha, Nebraska, the river had flooded an area 15 miles wide. Thousands of people tried to shore up dikes in Omaha, but after a week of battering the dikes, the river broke through. One person was killed and thousands lost their homes.
The next year, competing plans for a series of dams on the river were fighting for attention in Washington. One was from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, headed by Brig. Gen. Lewis Pick. Pick’s plan emphasized flood control and navigation for barges and boats. The other plan was from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, headed by William Sloan. It emphasized irrigation, hydroelectric power, fish and wildlife habitat and recreation.
Both plans had ardent supporters in Washington. So, President Franklin Roosevelt forced the two agencies into negotiations and demanded a compromise between them. The “Pick-Sloan Plan” was the compromise. Basically, the plan gave each agency the majority of what it wanted – and that totaled up to a lot.
The plan called for almost 100 reservoirs to be built on the Missouri and its tributaries with hundreds of miles of levies and floodwalls throughout the basin. The plan anticipated that thousands of barges would carry millions of tons of grain out of the Midwest to ports in New Orleans. And it called for irrigation channels watering 30 million acres of farmland.
The Pick-Sloan Act passed through Congress with the formal name of the “Flood Control Act of December 22, 1944.” In the 60 years since, the Act has resulted in a complete alteration of the river. Over 50 new dams and lakes have been built – not just on the Missouri, but also on the rivers flowing into it. For instance, Nebraska has over 10 lakes all across the state that were built because of the plan.
The Missouri itself has been channeled and held back behind a series of major dams. Now, it’s a tame river that only occasionally threatens to overflow.
But there are critics of the massive project – and they will criticize it from various viewpoints.
- Some irrigators are disappointed that only 10 percent of the planned irrigation acres actually receive water now. Still, that totals 3 million acres.
- Environmentalists point out that the old floods provided unique habitat for species like the Piping Plover bird and the Pallid Sturgeon fish.
- Native tribes are upset with that some of their sacred tribal grounds are now at the bottom of massive lakes.
- Critics of budget excesses point out that millions of dollars were spent to make the river safe for barges. Today, barge traffic is lower than the plan anticipated, but 60 percent of all grain exports move through the Missouri and Mississippi River systems to New Orleans.
- Other critics say that the silt that used to flow all the way down to the Mississippi delta is now filling up the expensive reservoirs.
Because the Pick-Sloan Plan was built to serve a multitude of interests, those interests have been competing ever since. For instance, in dry years, farmers want more water released to their fields, while the recreation industry that was created around the lakes want the water to stay there. Environmentalists lobby to have water released at certain times of the year to maintain habitat, while barge owners want the water to float their boats. There have been nasty political fights over the water.
Winton Wright says that the Missouri River system is important to grain marketers across the Midwest. He has been a long-time board member of both his local and regional cooperative grain association. “So those dams really [have] done, I think, wonders for this area.”
Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. A partial bibliography of sources is here.