The Troubling Double-Standards on Our Rivers

By Brad Walker, Rivers Director, Missouri Coalition for the Environment

After a century of recklessly damaging our rivers — far too often for little public benefit, one would hope that we would have learned some lessons. One of them should be that we would make it easier to restore our rivers than it is to further damage them. The committee structure intended to provide specific recommendations on river management that our lawmakers have enacted, unfortunately, have produced the opposite result.

In 1986 Congress gave the barge industry special interests a committee that, by its design, can easily agree on industry-favorable recommendations for further development of barge navigation. In contrast, river restoration advocates were saddled with a conflict-ridden, oversized committee that by its design is unlikely to agree on river restoration recommendations of any significance.


The Inland Waterways System (IWS) is an industrialized version of what were once America’s natural major rivers. Congress authorized and funded massive alterations of the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas, Kentucky, Columbia, and other major rivers to accommodate nine-foot draft barges to be pushed up and down our rivers, typically by channelizing and/or damming the rivers. There are about 12,000 official miles within the IWS, all of the natural portions severely degraded by the alterations. The map in Figure 1 below shows the rivers and coastal areas that are a part of the area in blue lines and the ports on the rivers in yellow dots.

Brad Map

Stakeholder committees serve special interests regardless of legislative goals

Congress has the ability to create committees and boards that are tasked with providing stakeholder recommendations and guidance to government agencies to help the agencies perform their duties. The complete MCE article compares two of those entities that were created to provide recommendations and guidance to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) regarding the Corps management of our rivers. An introduction to these two committees is provided below.

The Inland Waterways Users Board

The Inland Waterways Users Board was created in Section 302 of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 1986:

There is hereby established an Inland Waterway Users Board (hereinafter in this section referred to as the “Users Board”) composed of the eleven members selected by the Secretary, one of whom shall be designated by the Secretary as Chairman. The members shall be selected so as to represent various regions of the country and a spectrum of the primary users and shippers utilizing the inland and intracoastal waterways for commercial purposes. (emphasis added)

The primary duties of the Users Board were:

(to) meet at least semi-annually to develop and make recommendations to the Secretary regarding construction and rehabilitation priorities and spending levels on the commercial navigational features and components of the inland waterways and inland harbors of the United States for the following fiscal years. Any advice or recommendation made by the Users Board to the Secretary shall reflect the independent judgment of the Users Board.

The Users Board Meeting in St Charles, MO December 2015

The Users Board Meeting in St Charles, MO December 2015

The Missouri River Recovery & Implementation Committee (MRRIC)

MRRIC was established by Congress in the WRDA 2007 and the following extract (Section 5018 (a) from that legislation outlines the scope of the guidance that MRRIC was to provide the Corps regarding the Missouri River (emphasis added):

(1) IN GENERAL.—The Secretary, in consultation with the Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee to be established under subsection (b)(1), shall conduct a study of the Missouri River and its tributaries to determine actions required—

(A) to mitigate losses of aquatic and terrestrial habitat;

(B) to recover federally listed species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.); and

(C) to restore the ecosystem to prevent further declines among other native species.

Congress listed within the WRDA 2007 who should participate with MRRIC and who should be represented as stakeholders:

(2) MEMBERSHIP.—The Committee shall include representatives from—

(A) Federal agencies;

(B) States located near the Missouri River basin; and

(C) other appropriate entities, as determined by the Secretary, including—

(ii) Indian tribes located near the Missouri River basin; and

(iii) nongovernmental stakeholders, which may include—

(I) navigation interests;

(II) irrigation interests;

(III) flood control interests;

(IV) fish, wildlife, and conservation organizations;

(V) recreation interests; and

(VI) power supply interests.

Through the addition of several nongovernment stakeholders categories during the drafting of the MRRIC Charter by a small group of special interests representatives, along with other subsequent additions, the nongovernment stakeholders categories has swelled from six to sixteen and currently there are a total of 29 individual voting nongovernment stakeholders.

To read the details of how both of these committees have failed the public but served special interests read the full article: The Troubling Double-Standards on Our Rivers.