Missouri River Restoration
Imagine what the Missouri River was like just a few hundred years ago. It was a wide, untamed river with multiple channels, sloughs, backwater areas, and wetlands. Frequent flooding of the nearby land caused the channels to move and change with an endless number of shifting sandbars. Snags, or downed trees, and logjams were common. The river gained the nickname “The Big Muddy” because, well, it was muddy, carrying large amounts of sediment downstream.
Multiple channels, a variety of depths, and an abundance of trees and logjams provided a tremendous amount of diverse aquatic habitat. Wetlands, prairies, and forests were commonplace on the surrounding lands. Fish and wildlife communities flourished in and near this natural, wild river.
Imagine the life of a riverboat captain. Multiple channels that changed with nearly every flood were a constant challenge, and there was no defined channel. Maps were typically inaccurate and not very useful. No GPS. The snags and shallow areas complicated river travel and left stretches of the river in Missouri littered with the wrecks of paddlewheel boats.
Now imagine what life would have been like for people living near the river. Frequent flooding made life challenging. The shifting channel sometimes left entire towns isolated from the river commerce on which they depended. These features did not endear the river to those interested in the westward expansion of a rapidly growing nation.
Safety Gains and Habitat Loss
Beginning in 1912, the U.S. Congress directed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) to make the river easier and safer to navigate and to protect the adjacent lands from flooding. This program eventually became the Bank Stabilization and Navigation Project. The river was narrowed and deepened following the construction of dikes and other structures, dredging and stabilizing the riverbanks to keep them from eroding and meandering. Ultimately, the Corps built, and still maintains, a self-scouring, 9-foot-deep, 300-foot-wide, 2,321-mile-long navigation channel from Sioux City, Iowa, to the Missouri’s confluence with the Mississippi River near St. Louis. Since the early 1900s, Congress has invested more than $35 billion (in today’s dollars) on the Missouri River’s navigation channel, it’s mainstem reservoirs, and flood control projects along the river.
The benefits of the Bank Stabilization and Navigation Project were many, but the environmental cost was high, eventually resulting in the loss of 522,000 acres of water and land habitat; two-thirds of these acres were in Missouri. It was this environmental