Barge report sparks debate over Missouri River uses

Some say a new government report on Missouri River barges proves that the struggling downstream industry should be subjugated in favor of upstream interests, but others say the report is just a political ploy by upstream lawmakers.

N.D. lawmakers say barge traffic is 'inconsequential'
A barge navigates the lower Missouri River. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Some say a new government report on Missouri River barges proves that the struggling downstream industry should be subjugated in favor of upstream interests, but others say the report is just a political ploy by upstream lawmakers.

The federal Government Accountability Office compiled the report at the request of North Dakota's Sen. Byron Dorgan, Sen. Kent Conrad and Rep. Early Pomeroy, all of whom are Democrats. The report shows that the tonnage shipped on the Missouri River in Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri is small in comparison to the tonnage shipped on the Mississippi River in Iowa and Missouri.

Over the 13 years covered in the report, annual tonnage on the four-state area of the Missouri River ranged from 6.9 million to 9.7 million tons. Tonnage on the two-state area of the Mississippi River ranged from 35 million to 47 million tons.

According to a press release from the North Dakota lawmakers, the report, published earlier this month, proves that "barge traffic on the lower Missouri River has shriveled up to the point of being inconsequential."

Because the barge industry is so "inconsequential," the North Dakotans argue, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the Missouri River's six dams and accompanying reservoirs, should be directed to manage the river in a way that retains more water for upstream uses such as fishing and water-skiing.


"... The corps' management of the river favors a minnow of an industry downstream at the expense of a whale of an industry upstream," Dorgan said in the press release. "That's wrong-headed, and I'm going to keep pushing to change it. This report will give us much-needed ammunition for that purpose."

To bring about that change, Dorgan, who is chairman of the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, wants to insert $25 million into pending appropriations legislation. The money would fund a five-year study of the river-management purposes authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1944, which gave rise to the dams on the Missouri.

Some river groups, including the Missouri River Association of State and Tribes (MoRAST), which includes North and South Dakota, say modern uses of the river were not anticipated by the 65-year-old act. The law should be studied, they argue, to determine whether the originally authorized purposes still make sense or whether modification is needed.

At the heart of the issue is a decades-old struggle between downstream and upstream river interests. When the corps releases more water from the upstream dams, downstream barges benefit from the rising water while the upstream recreation industry suffers from falling water. The conflict is particularly tense during drought years.

Tom Waters, chairman of the Missouri Levee and Drainage District Association, said this week that the North Dakota delegation's reaction to the GAO report was more of the same political maneuvering that has been going on for years.

"It's a lot of rhetoric," Waters, of Orrick, Mo., said of the North Dakota delegation's statements.

The status of the downstream barge industry already was well known before the GAO report, said Waters, who said the report has little new information and is valuable primarily as political fodder for the upstream lawmakers who requested it.

The report's exclusive focus on tonnage ignores important information about the dollar value of the goods being shipped, Waters said. He pointed to corps statistics that show the annual worth of goods shipped on the Missouri River ranging from $306.9 million to $936 million, in today's dollars, during the 13-year period covered by the GAO tonnage report.


Waters also questioned the value of comparing tonnage on the two rivers, saying they are "two completely different rivers and it does not make sense to compare the two."

"However," he added, "the success of navigation on the Mississippi makes a case for trying to improve navigation on our other waterways across the country. Improving these 'blue highways' benefits our nation in many ways."

The North Dakota lawmakers have counterarguments. For example, the GAO report says that 84 percent of the shipments on the Missouri River during the 13-year period consisted of sand and gravel, and about 54 percent of that sand and gravel was transported one mile or less.

"For the Corps of Engineers to release critically needed water in the upstream dams to support a barge industry that's largely moving sand and gravel just a few miles," Dorgan said, "is thoroughly ridiculous."

John Cooper, former secretary of the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks and a recent chairman of MoRAST, said the sand and gravel that is shipped on the Missouri is primarily used by the corps to maintain the river channel and levies. It's been speculated that sand-and-gravel dredging could be contributing to a mysterious sinking effect that is causing the river to drop in elevation along a stretch from Nebraska to St. Louis.

Add it all up, said Cooper, and it's clear that the barge industry is "defunct."

"That GAO report is a very important report for Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska," Cooper said. "Primarily what it says is that the viability of an economically feasible barge industry just isn't there."

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