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 damage that led Congress to authorize the Missouri River Fish and Wildlife Mitigation Project in 1986. The Mitigation Project was authorized to purchase, from willing sellers, 166,750 acres in the Missouri River floodplain below Sioux City. The project was designed to restore fish and wildlife habitats, while retaining the Corps’ missions of navigation and flood damage reduction.
The pallid sturgeon was listed as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in 1990. In 2000, the USFWS published a Biological Opinion concerning the pallid sturgeon that established the need to improve habitat. This helped further the Mitigation Project, allowing sites to be constructed for the benefit of this ancient and now rare fish. In 2007, all these efforts were combined into a single program called the Missouri River Recovery Program.
Once land is acquired through the Recovery Program, habitat restoration plans are developed in coordination with the general public, local levee and drainage districts, and state and federal agencies, including the Department of Conservation. Projects include work in bottomland forests and grasslands and riverine and wetland areas. Shallow-water habitat is critical for pallid sturgeon recovery and is defined as side channels, backwater areas, sandbars detached from the bank, and low lying areas adjacent to the bank. Much of riverine restoration is focused on these areas. Wetland features that are being restored or created include scour holes, oxbows, and other wetland types.
Reconnecting the main channel of the river to side channels, backwaters, and the floodplain is another goal of habitat restoration on the Missouri River. Recent research suggests that overbank flooding is important because it causes an increase in invertebrates (insects, worms, crayfish, etc.), which are an important part of the river’s food chain. Two methods used for floodplain reconnection are opening levees and levee setbacks on mitigation lands. This provides for a dynamic habitat that is beneficial for fish and wildlife and provides additional outdoor recreation opportunities that are not available on other areas.
Recovery Program Accomplishments
Accomplishments over the past 27 years under these restoration programs include the purchase of more than 63,000 acres from willing sellers in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska. Restoration efforts have resulted in substantial gains in shrub lands (167 percent), grasslands (119 percent), forest (24 percent), and wetlands (13 percent). In Missouri, approximately 31,000 acres have been acquired at 28 sites in 16 of the 25 river counties. The Department of Conservation manages 10,274 acres of this land for the Corps. Other benefits to habitat restoration include enhanced opportunities for the public to use and enjoy these lands for hunting, fishing, boating, hiking, wildlife viewing, and other outdoor pursuits.
Missouri River public uses studies have shown that the lower river receives 2.5 million annual visits, which equals 8 million recreational hours spent each year on or adjacent to the river. Users are engaged in more than 71 different activities, with sight-seeing (29 percent), fishing (24 percent), and boating (12 percent) making up the top three. The 2004–2005 public use study of the lower Missouri River showed that this provides annual economic benefit of $39.1 million (in 2004 dollars).
Partnerships and quality resource management, guided by new research and increased knowledge, will ensure the continued success of the Recovery Program. Our combined efforts will further enhance Big Muddy for the benefit of its natural features and communities and the citizens who enjoy our nation’s longest river.
Additional information on the Missouri River Recovery Program and the Missouri River Fish and Wildlife Mitigation Project can be found at moriverrecovery.org. To find information on conservation areas on the river, visit the MDC Atlas Database at mdc.mo.gov/atlas.
Columbia Bottom Conservation Area
Located in St. Louis County, this 4,318-acre area is at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and is owned and managed by the Conservation Department. The Corps funds management and habitat development at the site for projects that comply with the goals of the Corps’ mitigation efforts. Restoration of bottomland hardwood forests, prairies, and shallow wetlands is ongoing. There are 120 acres of bottomland hardwood forest involved in this project, and 350 acres of prairies have been planted. The Recovery Program funds a pump station that delivers water to 800 acres of shallow wetlands. The area has frontage on both the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, totaling 6.5 miles and includes 800 acres of bottomland forest and a 110-acre island. Guest facilities include a visitor center, hiking trails, a boat ramp, and a viewing area. Find more information at mdc.mo.gov/a9736.
Lower Hamburg Bend Conservation Area
Located in Atchison County, the Corps purchased the land as part of the Recovery Program. The entire area is owned by the Corps. The Conservation Department manages the 2,465-acre Missouri portion, with the balance of the area located in Iowa. The area is managed for a variety of wildlife habitat including bottomland forest, warm-season grass plantings, and wetlands. A 2-mile-long side channel and a 500-acre island are also important habitat features. Find more information at mdc.mo.gov/a9911.
Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area
This area in Boone County consists of 4,431 acres owned and managed by the Conservation Department. The area has 17 wetland pools totaling 1,100 acres of shallow wetlands, moist soil marshes, and emergent marshes. Water from the City of Columbia’s wastewater treatment plant is routed through these wetlands, providing a reliable water supply and habitat for migrating birds and resident wildlife, and recreational opportunities. The Corps provides funds to assist in meeting the goals of their mitigation efforts on this area. One example is the installation of a structure that allows fish to move in and out of a wetland so it functions like a natural backwater, providing important fish spawning and nursery habitat. The area includes more than 10 miles of stream frontage along the Missouri River and Perche Creek. Find more information at mdc.mo.gov/a6415.
H. F. Thurnau Conservation Area
Located in Holt County, the area is managed to preserve unique old fields, grasslands, bottomland forests, wetlands, and other habitats associated with the Missouri River and to provide recreational opportunities for the public. The area is comprised of 366 acres owned by the Conservation Department and 1,362 acres owned by the Corps; the latter acreage was purchased through the Recovery Program. The area is located between the Tarkio and Missouri rivers in northwest Missouri and has 4.2 miles of river frontage. A boat ramp provides access to the Missouri River for anglers and boaters. There is also a primitive campground on the area. Find more information at mdc.mo.gov/a6415.