JEFFERSON CITY | Missouri farmers, lawmakers and utility officials asked the federal government Tuesday to preserve downstream flows of the Missouri River and ensure that barges will be allowed to transport goods along the country’s longest river.
More than a dozen people testified during a public hearing in Jefferson City hosted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for managing the 2,000-mile-long river.
Congress has authorized a five-year, $25 million study to determine if changes are needed to the management strategy outlined in a 1944 law.
Residents said the river was vital to Missouri’s economy, from providing drinking water to helping cool power plants, and flood control must be a priority. Some feared that the recreation interests of states upstream could take precedence and curtail barge traffic along the river.
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“The upper-states will never stop until they do away with navigation,” said Dan Kuenzel, 45, who raises hogs and grows corn and soybeans on river bottom land in Washington, Mo.
The Missouri River begins in Montana and flows into the Mississippi River just north of St. Louis. Upper basin states generally want water levels to rise or remain stable to help with fish reproduction and to keep reservoirs created by dams full for summer recreation. Lower basin states, including Missouri, want reliable flood control and a steady water flow for barges and drinking water or commercial water uses.
Many people at the hearing questioned why the Corps was studying river management priorities, citing another study completed in 2004. The current study focuses on a federal law approved in 1944 that makes the Corps responsible for managing the river for flood control, navigation, hydropower, irrigation, water supply, recreation, water quality, and fish and wildlife.
The Missouri Farm Bureau called the river study unnecessary.
U.S. Sen. Kit Bond said the study seemed to be an effort to keep more water upstream. The Republican said the Corps should be particularly focused on spurring economic growth and creating jobs.
Bond, along with Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill and Rep. Ike Skelton, sent a letter last month urging a halt to federal funding for the study. Bond said recreation should not supersede economic development.
“There is no economist outside of some tropical island paradise or some institution who believes that the central feature of a plan to ensure the economic success of a country is to promote fun at the expense of economic development,” Bond said during the hearing Tuesday.
Skelton, whose congressional district includes Jefferson City, said he vigorously opposes the study.
One of Skelton’s challengers, state Sen. Bill Stouffer, R-Napton, also attended the meeting and told reporters that he was concerned that the study could result in recreation interests supplanting navigation.
Stouffer said federal management of the river was initially designed for flood control and navigation.
“That’s the original intent, and that’s where it needs to remain,” he said.
Mark Harberg, the Army Corps project manager, said public input is needed to gauge what is valued by people living around and using the river.
“We understand there’s significant differences and interests between some of the states, and hopefully, we can do a thorough analysis of that,” Harberg said.
The hearing, held at a hotel a few blocks from the state Capitol, was the Corps’ first in Missouri. Meetings are planned for Wednesday in Kansas City, Thursday in St. Joseph and on July 9 in St. Louis. Hearings also will be held in Colorado, Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, South Dakota, Tennessee and Wyoming.
A final report will be given to Congress, where lawmakers will decide whether charges are needed.