Editorial Board

To Ease Drought on the Mississippi, Look Upstream

One quick way to raise the level of the Mississippi River, in this drought-parched season of idled barges, would be to release more water from dams on its biggest tributary, the Missouri.

Would that be smart? Many Dakotans, wishing to hang onto their water for uses such as oil drilling and fishing, would no doubt argue against it. What’s weird, though, is that the idea doesn’t even come up for debate, because federal law prohibits manipulating the Missouri in any way that’s expressly meant to help the Mississippi.

Thus this latest drought, like the floods that wreaked another kind of havoc less than two years ago, exposes a basic inadequacy in the way the U.S. manages the Mississippi River basin.

For a century, the river system has been regulated and engineered piecemeal. But as demands on water and power -- for navigation, electricity, recreation, consumption, agriculture and, now, hydraulic fracturing -- have increased beyond what the basin can provide, those who depend on the water need to come up with a cooperative management strategy for the entire river system.

Granted, this is a considerable chunk of territory, covering more than a million square miles and containing all or parts of 31 states, plus two Canadian provinces. The Mississippi’s substantial feeder rivers include not only the Missouri but also the Ohio, the Illinois, the Tennessee, the Arkansas, the Platte and the Red River of the South.

Flood Control

Since 1928, when Congress authorized the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project, the U.S. has managed the river with an emphasis on flood control. It has built levees and floodways, worked to stabilize the channel and put up dams on tributaries.

Now, many other interests also need to be managed. Barges, which carry billions of dollars’ worth of grain, oil, coal and fertilizer -- $2.8 billion in January alone, according to the American Waterways Operators, a barge industry trade group -- can’t operate unless the channel is at least 9 feet deep. This winter, water levels have dropped enough to threaten that traffic, and the Army Corps of Engineers has worked furiously to clear rocks from the river bottom.

Wetlands also need to be maintained as home to fish, birds and other wildlife. Drinking-water supplies must be kept clean. And farmers need water to grow corn, cotton and other crops.

All of this can be managed best if the Mississippi basin is treated as a whole. One of the bigger obstacles to doing this is the set of overlapping federal laws and court rulings, beginning with the Flood Control Act of 1944, that govern the Missouri. They require that, in operating the series of dams on the upper Missouri, the Army Corps of Engineers should consider eight interests -- in addition to flood control, these are water supply and quality, irrigation, hydropower, navigation, fish and wildlife protection, and recreation. They specifically do not include anything to do with the Mississippi.

Congress could, of course, change the law -- though differences of opinions among the states make the politics tricky. In 2009, lawmakers authorized a $25 million study to assess whether any changes should be made to the management of the Missouri, but soon after the study was started Congress declined to allocate most of the money for it.

State Cooperation

The good news is, Congress isn’t the only place where progress can happen -- as other states have demonstrated in more successful efforts to manage the Colorado River and the Columbia River. Those are smaller rivers, but in both cases the interested states have been able to work with one another and the federal government to reach consensus on how the waters should be managed. And, fortunately, there is growing desire from a range of users of the Mississippi and all its tributaries to cooperatively figure out how to balance their interests without overly taxing the rivers.

Representatives from the spectrum of Mississippi River interests -- barge operators, farmers and ranchers, flood-management specialists, environmentalists, and federal, state and local governments -- met in September to begin America’s Great Watershed Initiative. Ideally, this group will work for consensus on the best, most scientifically sound ways to manage the network of waterways.

Ultimately, Congress will need to act. (It could take a useful baby step now by funding that Missouri study.) But Mississippi interests need not wait for gridlock in Washington to dissolve before figuring out how all interests might cooperatively move forward.

If climate change increases the number of extreme droughts and floods, it may only push everyone that much faster toward consensus. For the moment, though, the best temporary fix for the Mississippi would be a nice stretch of rain.