Parts of the river were shut down this summer because of the reduced water flow from the incoming Missouri River and drought conditions throughout the region. At risk, according to Waterways Work, was some of the 150 million tons of commerce worth $24 billion that moves on the river every year.
While the weather was partly to blame, the core of the issue is river management. And that job belongs primarily to the Army Corps of Engineers. This week, Congress weighed in with slightly more than its two cents' worth.
Under the House-approved program, the Corps for the first time would be required to submit environmental and cost-benefit studies for review by outside experts. The requirement was inserted into a routine funding bill after the Corps was accused of doctoring data to justify a $1 billion expansion of barge docks on the Mississippi River.
Backers of the bill, which now goes to the Senate, say the independent review is needed to restore congressional confidence in the Corps. The legislation already faces opposition from the White House because of its $4.7 billion cost.
Meanwhile, the Corps is facing a March 1st deadline for revising its master manual of the Missouri River. The manual serves as a guide for managing the river.
At least a dozen lawsuits have been filed since 1991 as upstream and downstream states fight over how to operate the river. The latest flap developed this year when Montana and the Dakotas demanded steady or rising water levels to support the region's multimillion dollar sport fishing industry. Downstream states wanted water to support barge traffic below Sioux City, Iowa, and to provide water for power plants and cities.
South Dakota has submitted a compromise proposal that calls for maintaining water levels upstream in the spring, while supporting at least minimum barge traffic downstream. The plan then would extend the barge navigation season later in the fall.