In the last decade, a Montana Senator demanding water be held for recreation was “fed up” after fighting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, he said. An Omaha World-Herald editorial criticized river management plans for avoiding “the right course to environmental responsibility.” A federal judge ordered water held in Missouri River reservoirs for species such as the pallid sturgeon, interior least tern, and piping plover.
These are just some of the demands — besides flood control — on the Corps of Engineers for water of the upper Missouri River. Water has also been used for hydroelectric power and regulated for barge traffic.
So the question is not just whether to criticize the Corps of Engineers, but can we determine the best course of action for the future? What will be done with the silt accumulating behind dams? For how many years should the six main-stem Missouri River dams continue to operate (dams once operating on the Columbia River now are not)?
Some helpful context is the writing of painter George Catlin about 170 years ago, in which he referred to the Missouri as the “Hell of Waters” but saw “a redeeming beauty in the green carpeted shores, which hem in this huge and terrible deformity of waters.”
Catlin wrote that “the Missouri is, perhaps, different in appearance and character from all other rivers in the world; there is a terror in its manner which is sensibly felt, the moment we enter its muddy waters from the Mississippi.”
Catlin, by the time of his books, “Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of North American Indians,” had moved to Europe. Born in Pennsylvania, according to the introduction by Marjorie Halpin, he “left at the age of thirty-three to begin an odyssey among the western Indians and to fulfill his self-imposed destiny as their pictorial historian.”
Catlin, regarding the current and floodplain, wrote,
“the Missouri, with its boiling, turbid waters, sweeps off, in one unceasing current; and in the whole distance there is scarcely an eddy or resting-place for a canoe. Owing to the continual falling in of its rich alluvial banks, its water is always turbid and opaque … By the continual overflowing of the river … the river winds its serpentine course, alternately running from one bluff to the other.”
Catlin’s books are on Google.
John Neihardt, in his book “The River and I,” compared the Missouri to a fighter, and to a runner gasping for air. Neihardt criticized a dam that had been built in his day.
Judging from writers who knew the river before it was dammed, maybe it should not have been, at least not with all of the six major dams.