Iowa Public Television


Decisions Reached on Use of Rivers

posted on April 23, 2004

USDA is pondering a new definition for what constitutes a family farm. The agency's multi-billion dollar loan program is thinking of two standards: That a family farm either brings in less than 750-thousand dollars a year in gross income ... or that it cannot be in the top 5 percent in its state in gross annual income.

Some farmers are worried about those definitions. They fear they'll have to choose between expanding to remain successful or staying small to qualify for low-cost federal financing.

The tinkering of federal agencies over seemingly innocuous issues, like what defines a family farm, often has wide-ranging impact. That goes for bigger issues, too. Take, for example, decisions delivered this week on the management of two of the nation's major waterways.

Decisions Reached on Use of Rivers First, to the Missouri River, where a multi-state battle has raged for years over management of the waterway. This week, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to intervene in the case, passing on a chance to clarify whether the government can shift water usage on the river.

The Bush administration has faced multiple lawsuits over its management of the river, which runs through seven states from Montana to Missouri. The case refused by the high court stems from an appellate court interpretation last fall of a 1944 flood control law. That law states that reservoirs on the river are to be used to control flooding and maintain downstream navigation, with a lower priority given to recreation, and fish and wildlife.

The losers in that verdict were Montana and the Dakotas, which opposed an Army Corps of Engineers decision to release water from upstream reservoirs for relief to downstream barge traffic. In filings to the Supreme Court, lawyers for the three states said the value of recreation to their economy should NOT be downplayed. In opposing that view, the states of Missouri and Nebraska outlined their interest in water for farming, power production and other industries.

Meanwhile, on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers, the Corps of Engineers has decided to proceed with a $2.3 billion expansion of locks and dams.

The Corps will seek Congressional approval this year to begin design studies on the first phase of the plan, which doubles the size of seven locks on the rivers. The plan was conceived more than 10 years ago as a way to ease the congestion when longer, modern barges try to go through shorter, older locks.

Watchdog and environmental groups had opposed the plan, arguing that barge traffic would never increase enough to justify the cost of the project.

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