Hydrogeologist questions reservoir releases and blasting rock to deepen the Mississippi for barge traffic

Jan 28, 2013
Hydrogeologist questions reservoir releases and blasting rock to deepen the Mississippi for barge traffic
The Mississippi at St. Louis as mapped by then-lieutenant R.E. Lee of the Corps of Engineers in 1837.

(Phys.org)—The Jan. 17 issue of The New York Times celebrated "the remarkable feat of engineering" that kept the Mississippi River open to barge traffic despite extreme drought in the Midwest. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the article said, had dredged, blasted and scraped away rock obstructions along the riverbed, lowering the bottom of the channel at Thebes, Ill., by two feet.

What's more, engineers and had awoken every two hours through the night to release precise amounts of water from upstream reservoirs so as not to waste a single drop. It had been, in short, a heroic effort to rise to the challenge of falling water levels.

A hydrogeologist at Washington University in St. Louis, who has watched and brooded over the nearby river for 18 years sees it quite differently. "It was a trumped up crisis," says Robert W. Criss, PhD, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at WUSTL, "and I am offended by the way the news media has puffed it."

"We've got to start to recognize the realities of how rivers work," Criss says.

The wants to maintain a nine-foot depth so that barges carrying fossil fuels, grain and gravel can move down the river all year round.

But, says Criss, rivers are low in this part of the world at this time of year. In the normal annual cycle, the water recedes in the dry months of the fall, tapers off in the winter and then in the spring, the river floods.

He also points out that the Missouri River, which empties into the Mississippi north of St. Louis and accounts for 45 percent of the annual flow of the river as it passes St. Louis, has a huge catchment (it rises in western Montana) but one that receives very little rainfall. Most of the watershed gets less than 20 inches of precipitation a year, about as much as Iraq.

Hydrogeologist questions reservoir releases and blasting rock to deepen the Mississippi for barge traffic
The modern Mississippi river channel (blue) overlaid on R.E. Lee’s map. Bloody Island no longer exists and the Eads bridge connects Missouri to Illinois. River engineering has turned the Missouri and Mississippi, once braided rivers, into narrow, monotonous channels that are actually more, not less, likely to flood, says WUSTL hydrogeologist Robert Criss.

"We've got to stop subsidizing anachronistic industries like the barge industry," he says. "The barge companies would be out of business in a hot minute," Criss says, "if they had to maintain their own river channel and pay to use locks."

Several recent news stories have quoted shippers saying they cannot afford the cost of shipping by rail rather than by barge. "They're right," says Criss, "but only because the economics have been skewed by public policy: Railroads pay to maintain their own track."

Hydrogeologist questions reservoir releases and blasting rock to deepen the Mississippi for barge traffic
“River engineering hasn’t controlled the river,” Criss says. “It’s created a monster; the river is more and more unpredictable each year.”

"We can pretend barges can move tonnage cheaper, but the system they use is subsidized by the taxpayer and costs us dearly," Criss says.

"I believe that good environmentalism is good economics," Criss says, "and we'll make good choices only if we factor into the accounting the cost of the use or degradation of a natural resource we hold in common, such as the air or water."

Hydrogeologist questions reservoir releases and blasting rock to deepen the Mississippi for barge traffic
Criss has been calling for years for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to redo its flood frequency calculations. The frequencies the Corps uses are on the left axis of this chart and the floods that actually occurred over the past 30 years are on the right. (The chart is taken from a 2008 article in Environmental Health Perspectives, to which the consecutive “10-year” floods of 2009, 2010 and 2011 were added.) Because the calculated frequencies are so unrealistic, Criss says, federal flood insurance is grossly underpriced and floodplain development projects are not appropriately discouraged.

The barge industry was rescued this time by blasting but also by the release of 150,000 acre-feet of water from Lake Carlyle, a reservoir on the Kaskaskia River in Illinois. This "free" water, Criss says, would be worth many millions of dollars in the drought-stricken western United States.

"We're living in an imaginary world," says Criss, "and not dealing with our problems realistically. We should be investing in things where there is an opportunity for growth in the future, and there is no possibility of long-term growth in sending bulk-tonnage materials halfway around the world."

Criss doubts not only the accounting, but even the facts in stories about the river. On Jan. 8 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said the river levels were the lowest they'd been in seven decades.

"Not so, said Criss, in a follow-up letter to the editor. The river was as low or lower in 1989 and in 2003. He points out that detailed stage records are provided online by the U.S. Geological Survey and by the National Weather Service's "Rivers and Lakes" pages.

Criss, having battled the U.S. for years, no longer trusts their calculations (see floodplain diagram). He is not alone in this. In 2000, a senate subcommittee accused the corps of "skewing data to justify higher spending for water projects," according to The New York Times.

In 2005, again according to The New York Times, the National Academy of Sciences found that "the agency routinely inflated the economic payoffs of its construction projects to justify steadily greater budget outlays, while underestimating the environmental damage of those projects."

In 2006, Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) introduced amendments to a Water Resources Development that required proposed corps projects be submitted to peer review. The act became law in 2007, but by then Feingold had withdrawn his support because he felt the reform would not change the way the corps did business.

Criss points out that crises on the Mississippi will only become more frequent because climate change is expected to amplify stream flow variations. "Just last year, the river was too high for barges," he says, "yet this year the river is too low for barges."

Explore further: NOAA establishes 'tipping points' for sea level rise related flooding

Related Stories

Lower Midwest braces for flood onslaught

Jun 16, 2008

Residents of the central and southern Midwest are crossing their fingers, saying their prayers, planning evacuations, and in some cases filling sandbags in preparation for the excessive water ravishing communities ...

Geologist decries floodplain development

Apr 01, 2008

Midwesterners have to be wondering: Will April be the cruelest month? Patterns in the Midwest this spring are eerily reminiscent of 1993 and 1994, back-to-back years of serious flooding, with the Great Flood ...

Population growth puts dent in natural resources

Oct 08, 2008

It's a 500-pound gorilla that Robert Criss, Ph.D., professor of earth and planetary sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, sees standing on the speaker's dais at political rallies, debates and ...

Water supply shifts as global climate changes

Jun 15, 2009

Many of the world's great rivers are becoming less so. Yet in the Midwest, the wet is getting wetter. So says a study that finds global climate change shifting weather and water patterns around the planet.

Recommended for you

UN sends team to clean up Bangladesh oil spill

14 hours ago

The United Nations said Thursday it has sent a team of international experts to Bangladesh to help clean up the world's largest mangrove forest, more than a week after it was hit by a huge oil spill.

How will climate change transform agriculture?

14 hours ago

Climate change impacts will require major but very uncertain transformations of global agriculture systems by mid-century, according to new research from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Report: Radiation leak at nuclear dump was small

14 hours ago

A final report by independent researchers shows the radiation leak from the federal government's underground nuclear waste repository in southern New Mexico was small and localized.

Confucian thought and China's environmental dilemmas

19 hours ago

Conventional wisdom holds that China - the world's most populous country - is an inveterate polluter, that it puts economic goals above conservation in every instance. So China's recent moves toward an apparent ...

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Pediopal
2.6 / 5 (10) Jan 28, 2013
Chriss sounds like a very intelligent man. Why should taxpayers subsidize private industry? To all of the right-wingers screaming about Obama care being a Socialist endeavour they should be looking into the Socialist use of tax dollars on projects like the one in the article. At least Obama care is intended to help all of the citizens not just a few with deep pockets and powerful lobbyists.
lengould100
5 / 5 (1) Jan 28, 2013
A good example of taxpayer-subsidized private enterprise and logical to eliminate, but by no means the worst. Pretty much every page in the 1,000 page tax code beyond the first 10 has been put in there by special interests looking for a special deal. Or how about aircraft manufacturers. Oil producers. etc. etc. etc.
Kitanne
not rated yet Jan 29, 2013
Taxpayer subsidies of private enterprise abound at every level, from special tax exemptions or reductions to new firms locating or relocating their business, to tax breaks given major manufacturers of everything from airplanes to refrigerators, to say nothing of the subsidies of the oil industry. If we don't like it, we have a democratic process by which we, the people, can effectuate change. It would require that we organize, unite, and work for change. I don't expect to see it happen soon.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.