The History of Transportation
on the Mississippi River

Part Four

by Richard Moore, IWLA

Even before the Corps of Engineers began construction of the lock and dam system, some people were becoming increasingly concerned about the biological health of the Mississippi River. The wing dams and closing dams that improved the river for navigation also separated the backwaters and side channels from the continual ebb and flow of river currents that sustained them. Levees were being constructed to control flooding and make the fertile floodplains suitable for agriculture. Human efforts to tame the river had interfered with the cycles of nature that had sustained it for eons.

In the early 1920s, plans were developed for a major levee project on the river along the Wisconsin - Iowa border. The project would destroy 15,000 acres of productive bottomland, an area known as Winneshiek Bottoms.

These plans aroused the ire of the Izaak Walton League of America, a young conservation organization that had formed in Chicago in 1922. Many of the League's founding members were prominent Chicago businessmen who vacationed on the Mississippi and had witnessed the loss of bottomland habitats over the years.

Through a sustained lobbying effort, the League convinced Congress that the remnants of the Mississippi's once-vast floodplain ecosystem should be preserved. Congress responded by creating the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge in 1924. Over then next twenty years, the federal government acquired nearly 200,000 acres of Mississippi River bottomlands along a 260 mile reach of the river.

The refuge was barely 10 years old when the first locks and dams were constructed within its boundaries. When the refuge was created, Congress had spelled out very clearly that efforts to preserve bottomlands could not interfere with barge traffic.

The effect of the new navigation dams on the refuge's resources was not clearly understood at the time. In fact, many biologists of the day believed that the new "pools" created by the dams would be good for the region's fish and wildlife.

Looking back, we can now see that the navigation system has not been good for the river. Because the dams blocked river flows, side channels and backwaters began to fill with sediments that had previously been carried downstream. Islands that remained in the lower reaches of the pools were broken down by wave action. By the 1960s, it was clear to many river biologists that the river was in decline.

As this was occurring, barge traffic on the river continued to increase. Navigation remained the Corps of Engineers' highest priority, and Corps planners were preparing for more barges on the Mississippi in the future.

Studies were conducted to determine if it would be practical to provide a deeper channel, or to keep the river open for barges throughout the entire year. The Corps also developed plans for a new, longer lock at Alton, Illinois, to replace the original structure completed in 1938. Congress appropriated the money to build the new lock in 1974.

Conservation groups decided that they'd had enough. It was increasingly clear that the Corps' drive to put more barges on the river would destroy the Mississippi's ecology. Encouraged by new environmental laws, the Izaak Walton League and the Sierra Club immediately filed suit to stop the project. The federal court decided that the Corps would have to review the environmental impacts of the construction and increased barge traffic on the river before the lock could be built.

With the project halted, the controversy moved to the halls of Congress. Barge interests continued to have great influence with lawmakers, Over the next several years, more than a dozen bills were introduced, some which would simply allow the Corps to begin construction, others that would stall the project for years, and some in between those two extremes.

The conflict over the Alton project was settled in 1978, when Congress authorized the project, ended planning for a 12 foot channel, and commissioned a study of the environmental impacts of navigation on the Mississippi. Ending the Alton controversy settled nothing, however. In the 1980s and through the 1990s, new battles would be waged.

to be continued...

History of Mississippi River Transportation
Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 5 - Part 6 - Part 7 - Part 8 - Part 9 - Part 10

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