The Social Justice Challenge encourages bloggers to read and write monthly on social justice issues. This month’s theme is Water, and I can’t think of any theme more relevant to Lewis & Clark and the usual topics we post about on this blog.
As ecologist Daniel Botkin has written, “the Lewis and Clark expedition is a powerful aid to us as we try to understand what we have done to our surroundings.” As the first scientific explorers to venture into the great American West, Lewis and Clark recorded in detail what the wildlife, landscape, and rivers were like before modern civilization changed it all. For today’s post, I will write a bit about what has happened to the Missouri River since Lewis & Clark’s time, then follow it up later this week with another post about the changing Columbia.
Meandering some 2300 miles from its source in the mountains of Montana to its mouth in St. Louis, the Missouri River posed a major physical, emotional, and technological challenge to the Corps of Discovery. On their journey west, the Corps of Discovery battled every inch of the way upstream, with nothing more than poles, paddles, and human grit and endurance. Even more so than most wild rivers, the Missouri was exceptional for constantly wandering out of its banks, carving out new channels through the plains and leaving behind oxbow lakes, banks that caved in on the explorers, and strong current filled with dangerous snags and sandbars.
It was all in a day’s work for Lewis & Clark, as well as the Indians who had made their homes near the river for millennia. Many of the Plains Indians were nomadic, meaning if the river got ornery, they could pack up their lodges and move. Even town-dwelling tribes like the Mandans regularly moved to higher ground in response to the river’s moods. But as Americans arrived in the wake of the explorers, they wanted to put down permanent towns and farms, build roads and bridges, and travel up and down the river on new-fangled steamboats. They couldn’t do that if they were constantly being wiped out by huge floods. That meant the wild Missouri had to be tamed.
The first government projects on the Missouri began in the 1830s with the removal of snags and overhanging limbs. By 1838, more than 2000 trees had been removed from the river. I was amazed to learn that snag removal continued on the Missouri until 1950! But it was the work done in the 20th century that would transform the Missouri into a river that Lewis & Clark wouldn’t even recognize. Beginning in the 1930s, six gigantic dams were constructed on the upper Missouri, changing the river into a series of calm lakes. And in 1945, Congress instructed the Army Corps of Engineers to scour and straighten the the lower Missouri from Sioux City to St. Louis, and build the levees and walls necessary to transform the river into a man-made channel.
The levees and dams allowed for flood control, irrigation, electricity, safe waters for commercial boat traffic, and great fishing and recreation. They also had costs that people at the time did not foresee, at least not as problems. In some places, they inundated hundreds of thousands of acres of fish and wildlife habitat (as well as traditional Indian homelands), while in others they ended the seasonal floods on which plants and animals depended. Over 90% of bottomlands, islands, and sandbars were eliminated. As a result, bird species like the white pelican and the least tern, common in Lewis & Clark’s time, became rare or endangered. Even the elimination of snags, which seemed harmless, reduced the insect life on the river so dramatically that species like catfish and sturgeon dwindled away.
The levees and dams also allowed for human development in floodplains in which the Missouri had once wandered at will. The consequences of this were thrown into stark relief in July and August 1993, when the Missouri was hit with a flood of biblical proportions. It turned out that the channelization of the river actually increased the devastation of the flooding, as the river barreled through the channel with no way to spread out into its historic wetlands. The flood became one of the most expensive natural disasters in the history of the United States. It destroyed more than 10,000 homes, killed fifty people, inundated 15 million acres of farmland, suspended barge and railroad traffic for weeks, and caused $15 billion in damage. At their peak the floodwaters covered an area created than the combined areas of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. With nowhere for the water to go, some locations remained flooded for close to 200 days.
Since the 1993 floods, there has been debate about restoring the river to a more natural state, but little has been done. In fact, after several years of drought, development in floodplains is once again booming with new strip malls, office parks, and homes. New and enlarged levees are under construction. In the meantime, aging old levees remain in place, at risk for breakage in the next massive flood. East St. Louis, Illinois, in particular, is considered vulnerable to a New Orleans-style flood.
On the plus side, there is hope for the birds and fish of the lower Missouri, as major restoration projects in bottomland areas have succeeded in providing habitat for wildlife, enabling several species to rebound from the brink of extinction.