The History of Transportation
on the Mississippi River
Part Nine
by Richard X. Moore, IWLA

Supporters of the Corps' navigation plans like to point out that although the navigation system has been in place for 60 years, the Mississippi River still supports a vibrant fishery and a mosaic of highly productive wildlife habitats. The suggest that the river is resilient enough absorb an ever increasing number of barges and still remain one of the most important and productive natural systems in our hemisphere.

It is true that the Mississippi River is still a spectacular natural resource, but we still know very little about its ecological processes, and what we do know raises many causes for concern. The river maintained a healthy ecosystem for decades after the locks and dams were installed, but recently, some signs of decline began to appear.

In the 1980s, for example, aquatic plant beds in some pools of the upper river began to shrink. Aquatic plants are important for fish and waterfowl habitat. Fisheries biologists are also expressing more and more concern over the loss of islands and the siltation of backwater habitats. Backwaters in particular are critical habitats for important gamefish species like largemouth bass and bluegills.

In 1999, the Upper Midwest Environmental Science Center, an agency of the US Department of the Interior located in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, published a report that has increased the level of concern over the future of the Mississippi.

The report detailed the status of the Upper Mississippi River ecosystem by compiling all the research that had been done on the river. The Report concluded that, while there are many things we don't know about the Upper Mississippi, what we do know tells us that the river has been significantly degraded and, in many respects, continues to get worse.

The report stated, correctly, that there are many causes of the Mississippi's problems. In addition to the locks and dams and the commercial barge traffic on the river, the Mississippi is impacted by runoff from suburbs, construction sites and agricultural fields. It continues to absorb the pollutants from dozens of wastewater treatment plants serving riverfront communities and industrial facilities. But one thing is clear; the navigation dams represent the most significant, human induced physical change in the river's history.

For its part, the Corps of Engineers has suggested that the effects of their proposed navigation project will have little effect on the river. But even the Corps must admit that the studies they have performed to date are inconclusive. And conservations argue that the Corps is leaving some important factors out of its analysis.

As the Corps examines the potential environmental effects of extending locks on the Mississippi, they are looking only at the effects of the additional barges, not at the impacts of the system as a whole. Throughout their history of management on the river, the Corps has always avoided looking at the environmental impacts of the entire lock and dam system.

Many conservationists believe that this is the wrong approach, that by looking only at the next increment of new traffic, the Corps is masking the damage that commercial navigation does to the river. Conservationists have been arguing for many years that the Corps should do a complete historical study of their impacts on the river before any navigation expansion takes place.

So while the Corps argues that it has spent more than $25 million on environmental research over the last 6 years, conservationists respond that the money hasn't been well spent because the Corps has been looking at the wrong questions.

The results of the Corps' studies seem to support the conservationist's arguments. After spending all that money, the Corps still can't answer the critical questions about the future navigation's impacts on the river, let alone the impacts the system has already had. They've responded by pledging that they will continue to study the issue as they plan for the new locks and fix any problems that they find at some later date.

While many proponents of lock extensions speak of balance between the river as a natural system and the river as an economic resource, it's hard to find much balance in the Corps' approach to the issue so far.

to be continued...

History of Mississippi River Transportation
Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6 - Part 7 - Part 8 - Part 10

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