Midwest members of Congress sound alarm on lower Missouri River navigation

As harvest seasons begins, an urgent letter from members of Congress representing districts along the Missouri River is drawing attention to the “dire” navigation situation created by a maintenance backlog on the lower river.

The letter was sent to Lt. Gen. Scott Spellmon, chief of engineers, with copies to R.D. James, assistant secretary of the Army-civil works, and the commanders of the Kansas City and Omaha Engineer districts. It was signed by five United States senators and five out of eight members of Missouri’s congressional delegation.

Signers included Sens. Josh Hawley and Roy Blunt of Missouri; Deb Fischer of Nebraska; Jerry Moran of Kansas, and Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Senate president pro tempore. Reps. Vicky Hartzler, Ann Wagner, Jason Smith, Sam Graves and Blaine Luetkemeyer, all of Missouri, also signed.

“We write today to convey a growing concern that we continue to hear from navigators and industries that rely upon the Missouri River for the transportation of their raw materials. Currently, there is a critically dire situation related to navigation challenges in several areas along the Missouri River where serious barge traffic accidents have occurred and commercial activity has nearly come to an abrupt halt” as harvest season gets underway.

Both the Omaha and Kansas City districts have been using supplemental emergency funds to quickly repair levees and restore channels damaged by the historic flooding of 2019. The Kansas City District alone has received about $20 million in extra money, but the letter said the need for resources between Omaha and Kansas City stands at about 10 times that amount. “As this situation evolves, the request that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers utilize administrative flexibilities and direct additional resources to address these challenges along the Missouri River,” the letter urged.

Between 2000 and 2010, severe drought reduced Missouri River levels to a point where commercial navigation almost disappeared. A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has confirmed that that drought was the worst experienced by the Missouri River in 1,200 years. That report said the river has been slowly drying out since the 1950s due to steady declines in Rocky Mountain snowmelts.

Since the drought ended, ports along the river have been making efforts to bring back navigation. The Port of Kansas City has revived and built out new infrastructure. On Sept. 9, ground was broken for a new $11 million barge loading and unloading terminal along the Missouri River at Mile 680.5 near Blencoe, Iowa, returning commercial navigation to its farthest-north point since the drought ended.

Navigation has also been affected by river structures designed to provide habitats for three listed endangered species: the pallid sturgeon, elast tern and piping plover. The Corps of Engineers is currently appealing a March 2018 court decision in the United States Court of Federal Claims that ruled in favor of Missouri River landowners. The property owners claimed that the Corps’ habitat structures caused increased flooding what amounted to an unconstitutional “taking” of their riverside land. Judge Nancy B. Firestone found that the Corps deprioritized flood control beginning in 2004, leading to a series of changes in flood control management that served to cause or contribute to cause flooding in 2007, 2008, 2010, 2013, 2014 and since.

Although the letter by the Missouri River members of Congress noted that the Missouri River had unprecedented flooding in 2019 along its length, it attributed the “current conditions and challenges impacting the navigation channel” to “previously constructed shallow water habitat chute projects and dike notches” designed to protect the listed species.

David Murray can be reached at [email protected].