The Incredible Sinking River

I must apologize to all my faithful readers; I’ve been silent now for a couple of weeks. Frankly, I’ve been stunned into silence by something I read. The Missouri River is sinking. Yes, sinking. In some areas between Nebraska and St. Louis the river is now 12 feet lower than it was 50 years ago, relatively the same amount of water, but the bottom of the river as “sunk”.

What stunned me was this…scientist and engineers are trying to figure why. Really? The word EROSION comes to mind, but what do I know. The article went on to say that the engineers are trying to figure out what to do about it. Really? Another word comes to mind…NOTHING!

Now, I love all rivers, but I have a special affinity to the Missouri River. This River, by most accounts is the longest river in the United States. It begins in the mountains of Montana and carves its way for over 2600 miles to the Mississippi. It is UP this river that Lewis and Clark and their men (and one woman and an infant) rowed, poled, pushed, and pulled their boats in an attempt to discover a northwest passage over 200 years ago. It is UP this river, that I myself, once planned to retrace their steps (or strokes as the case may be) in a canoe. Operative word is PLANNED, until an acquaintance from Kansas City exclaimed, “You are going to do WHAT on the Missouri River? Have you SEEN the Missouri River?”

The Missouri has cut its path across the western United States since the last ice age. During those thousands of years its channel has “wandered” across the plains, especially south of the Dakotas and into Missouri. What I mean by wandered is that it continues to cut new paths through the sandy soil. Lewis and Clark campsites that were on the north side of the river 200 years ago, are now on the south. Sections of river they traveled are now oxbow lakes. During their trip up the river the described countless times when the banks were caving in around them as the river eroded the backs, giant trees crashing into the water. Islands on which they camped on the way up stream where GONE three years later when they returned. They had been eroded away by the powerful current.

Aerial photographs of the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi show the color of the Mississippi changing to a muddy brown from all of the sand and silt being carried by the “Big Muddy”.

So, what has changed in 200 years? We have constructed six dams, impounding 35 % of the river. This prevents the river from flowing freely as it once did. This has had huge impacts on the down stream portions of the river. In addition, we have channelized the river by dredging (especially in the 700 hundred miles between Rulo, Nebraska and St. Louis, Missouri. We have constructed wing dykes, which force the water to the center of the channel, and we have constructed levees to protect our cities.

In a real sense, we have shackled the river and no longer allow it to wander. We continue to use its sands as a free source of sand for concrete and other uses. In the year 2000 alone 7.4 million tons of sand was dredged from the river for commercial uses and development.

Now, a sinking river does create an incredible set of complex problems ( imagine a bridge pylon that was buried 16 feet into the river bottom and now is only buried 8 feet), but does anybody else out there see the correlation or is it just me. We have strangled the river, forced it into a channel, stolen its resources for concrete and yet, we are mystified as to why it is sinking?

Now, what do about it? Imagine, if you will, the discussion a couple of kazillion years ago as the Colorado River began to cut its way through the soft rock of the Arizona desert. “Gosh, do you think we should do something about it? Maybe if we divert some of the water, it won’t wash away the village. Maybe we could line the bottom of the river with those big hard rocks and it won’t wash them away. OrOR, MAYBE WE SHOULD JUST MOVE THE TEEPEE TO A SAFER LOCATION!”

So when ARE we going to learn that you really can’t mess with Mother Nature; you can’t REALLY control a river; you can’t really prevent a flood; when you build in a flood plain you are just asking to get wet? My vote is, move the bridges, don’t move the river!

Comments

  1. Brad says

    I completely agree. Mother Nature speaks very loudly and clearly most of the time but yet we choose not to listen. There is no force stronger than nature, especially water in nature. 200 some years now and we still feel like we can out-smart it all? Let nature take its course. It is our duty as humans, on NATURE’S Earth, to adapt.

  2. Paul Guyer says

    Jeff, another wonderful piece on a topic that has great interest to me.

    I live near the Cuyahoga River and spend a fair amount of time in the National Park surrounding the river that once caught on fire. Most people know that story, but less know the amazing cleanup effort that has transformed the Cuyahoga over the past decades. Most of the dams have been removed, thousands and thousands of volunteer hours have gone into cleaning up the river and yes, even a National Park surrounds the Valley it cuts through NE Ohio. Even in Cleveland we have a National Park close by.

    The other ‘dam’ story is, of course, the Colorado River. In 2004, my son, my dad, and I took a raft trip down the Grand Canyon. I’ve been fascinated with the GC for years, and the story of the Glen Canyon dam right above Marble Canyon, Lake Powell, and the destructive effects of that dam is a big lesson in what not to do with a marvel of nature like the Colorado.

    Keep ’em coming, Jeff, you write great stuff.

    Paul

  3. Tim H says

    Wow, fantastic piece, Jeff. Very insightful in using Louis & Clark’s experiences to help show the natural, normal changes in the past in contrast to the current restricted confines now.

    And great reply, Paul – Just when I was starting to get that sunken ‘hopeless’ feeling, its wonderful to hear about successful efforts to undo man-made wrongs.

    Keep up the great work!

    Tim

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