Let me see if I understand this. President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Flood Control Act of 1944 into law to renovate the Missouri River. The river renovation project built dams to create huge reservoirs between Montana and South Dakota.
The Missouri River is vital to municipal water supplies, for hydroelectric production and recreation, but the New Deal era river renovation project reservoirs were built in order to regulate the flow of the Missouri River to prevent annual flood damage in the basin and improve river navigation.
People residing in states housing the big reservoirs found a golden opportunity to use the reservoirs for fishing and boating, and before long homes and cabins popped up around the reservoirs followed by piers and boat docks. Soon the reservoirs were big attractions for tourists seeking water recreation.
During wet years, the barge season is longer because the river levels are adequate to support barge traffic, and the reservoirs remain full for recreation and tourism, but what about years of drought? During dry times, when the water is needed downriver to keep the barges in business, the states with the reservoirs don’t want to release the water for fear of hurting their tourism and recreation.
As a result, in spite of the original purpose of river renovation, states housing the reservoirs are fighting to change the priorities of the entire river for their own benefit. Montana and North Dakota want more water stored in the reservoirs and less released for towboats in the southeast. To this end, Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota initiated a $25 million, five-year study to determine Missouri River priorities, even though a $35 million, 15-year study was just completed as recently as 2004. Now that’s a boatload of cash!
Critics of river navigation would have us believe the barge business is no longer important and often quote the reduction in the amount of barge traffic on the Missouri River. What they fail to report is the reason for the barge traffic reduction is frequently the political struggle to keep the reservoirs full instead of keeping a steady flow on the river.
If the reservoirs were used as intended by the federal government when designed and created, more water would come downstream in dry seasons to keep the barge industry going as well as provide critical flow for the Mississippi River, and that makes sense. Shipping commodities by barge is the cheapest method of transportation we have, and the river serves the huge farm belt of our country.
America simply cannot afford to destroy our wonderful river transportation infrastructure in order to float the boat of the politically powerful senator from North Dakota.