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Bend in the River: Shift in nation's capital promises to change course of environmental policies

Jason Lindsey

Vermont is a long way from the Mississippi River. But with the right boat and some time, it’s possible to get there, traveling a long and circuitous route up the Illinois River, through the Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal, into the Great Lakes and ultimately down Lake Champlain to Burlington. 

Illinoisans had reasons to think of Vermont this spring. That tiny state became the epicenter of a national political upheaval when Vermont’s Sen. James Jeffords renounced the Republican Party in May, thereby switching the U.S. Senate to Democratic control.

The power shift promises to change the course of public policy in many ways, perhaps none so decisively as the deliberations in Congress on the environment and the nation’s rivers. The Mississippi River, in particular, has arrived at a bend in its storied history. Suddenly, as a result of Jeffords’ declaration one morning in Burlington, proposals for conservation and restoration programs along that river and others are certain to get a far more serious airing than had been predicted.

Such projects likely will receive more generous allocations than had been planned. Farmers along the Mississippi denied entry to the wetlands reserve program because the initiative had reached its spending ceiling might have a new opportunity next year to take sensitive lands out of production, and in so doing improve water quality and wildlife habitat.

By all accounts, Jeffords’ party-shifting will trigger a sea-change in the treatment of environmental issues over the next two years, following President George W. Bush’s first two months in office when he downgraded their importance. It could have special meaning for the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Army’s $4 billion civil works agency, and its handling of those Mississippi River issues pending. The political bombshell exploded just as the corps was trying to complete its most expensive and controversial study in history: an analysis of the future of the Mississippi River.

Scott Faber, a lawyer in Washington with the advocacy group Environ-mental Defense, might not have been exaggerating when he summed up how the fulminations on Capitol Hill will be felt 800 miles away. “The changes in the Senate are going to have a dramatic effect on the Mississippi River.”

It may be hard to match the dramas in past years involving the Mississippi River and the Army Corps of Engineers — especially the tribulations of its river study that continue to unfold.

The Mississippi River has grown remote from the lives of most Illinoisans. Rather than being celebrated as the nation’s most legendary waterway, often the Mississippi is viewed as little more than a superhighway for barges, most noticed when it jumps its banks in spring to torment those who insist on conquering its floodplain. Instead of being recalled for its role in the settling of the Midwest, the river is viewed as a drainpipe aswirl with the supernutrients of farm runoff en route to the Gulf of Mexico, where they have created a “Dead Zone” of oxygen-depleted waters the size of New Jersey.

Modern farming methods calling for 150 pounds of nitrogen fertilizer per acre of corn are responsible for the nutrient pollution. The Army Corps of Engineers — acting at the behest of Congress — is responsible for turning the Mississippi into something that Louis Jolliet, the merchant, and Jacques Marquette, the priest, could scarcely recognize if they reprised their historic river explorations of 1673.

Aside from the last glacier 12,000 years ago, no other force is more responsible for the appearance of the Mississippi today than the corps. To create a navigable waterway, the corps deepened the river, sped its flow and even changed its course. It would no longer be, as Mark Twain once called it, “the crookedest river in the world” and a wandering body of water with “the disposition to make prodigious jumps by cutting through narrow necks of land.”

The corps would see to it that the willful river did not jump from its course again. The changes began just after the Civil War, when Congress authorized a four-foot channel in the upper Mississippi from St. Louis to St. Paul. This was a time when the nation, motivated by naturalist and adventurer John Wesley Powell of Illinois, was trying to conquer nature by boldly changing rivers. The modern transformation ended in 1940, when construction was completed on the last dam on the upper stretch of the river, at Clarksville, Missouri. 

As far as we know, Army engineers never encountered what the Indians warned Jolliet and Marquette about as they shoved off on their journey: a demon “whose roar could be heard at a great distance, and who would engulf them in the abyss where he dwelt.” Nevertheless, they built a lock and dam system to keep the beast leashed. That restraint moderates its legendary ebb and flow, allowing for consistent navigation. And in altering the river’s form and function, the corps has helped Midwesterners prosper by enabling dependable barge traffic to carry corn and soybeans to foreign markets. 

The corps gets credit in some quarters for reducing flooding with the levees it has built and for helping victims when levees won’t hold surging waters. But increasingly the corps is vilified for destroying the backwaters, wetlands and habitats of fish and fowl. 

Other than Congress, no entity is more responsible than the corps for disconnecting Illinoisans from the Mississippi River along their state’s western border.

Often there’s been a power struggle between the corps and those who live on the river’s edge and in its basin. In the 1870s, the corps threatened to tear down the Eads Bridge connecting Illinois with St. Louis after construction had begun in order to show people who really controlled the river, as John Barry recalled in his book, Rising Tide. In the 1930s dam-building era, the corps found itself in a battle with Illinois conservationists aided by earlier incarnations of the national Sierra Club and the Izaak Walton League. There were many fights to follow, but in its nearly 200-year history, the corps had never seen as much heat as it has endured during its study about the future of the Mississippi River.

In 1993, the corps began what it ponderously named the Upper Mississippi and Illinois River Waterway System Navigation Study. Not since 1850, when Congress ordered a survey of the Mississippi from Cairo to New Orleans, had army engineers attempted a project of such broad scope. The aim of the new study was to determine the navigation needs of the Mississippi River into the middle of the 21st century and to recommend changes accordingly. 

That could mean new locks or at least doubling the size of the 600-foot locks on the upper Mississippi and the Illinois.

If the corps determines that new river construction is needed, it would trigger one of the biggest resource battles in the Midwest in recent times, a high-decibel ruckus pitting the farm industry against environmental advocates. Corn and soybean groups are among the farm organizations insisting that modernizing the Mississippi’s lock system is necessary if farmers are to keep up with the South Americans, who have emerged as fierce competitors to Illinoisans in the global trade of commodity grains. Brazil has enjoyed soybean-growing triumphs in its vast, previously empty Cerrado region in the central part of the country by treating the soil with lime. And now South American nations are working on a massive river construction project of their own that frightens Midwestern farmers — a 2,100-mile-long waterway replete with deep-water ports that connect Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia, Argentina and Uruguay.

When he looks upriver at the Mississippi, that prospect troubles Chris Brescia, president of the Midwest Area River Coalition 2000, a barge and ag industry trade association in St. Louis. “We have the oldest locks with the least modernization and the biggest backlog of maintenance,” he says.

But conservationists and others who put a premium on the natural beauty of the river’s ecology fear the effects of expanded barge traffic. More barges mean more wakes that uproot the marsh plants that provide sustenance for migratory waterfowl and bolster the food chain when they are left to decay. The wakes from the passing barges also accelerate the decline of shallow water nurseries for fish by filling in side channels and sloughs with sediment. In the minds of the conservationists, those Mississippi River barges are delivering sedimentation along with cargo.

So far, the Army Corps of Engineers has spent $60 million on its study about what to do along the river. But what has happened during the study so far has changed the corps rather than the river. And the power shift in Washington involving Vermont’s James Jeffords might well continue that trend.

To justify $1 billion or more in dam construction to Congress, the corps needs proof the volume of grain that would be moving on the Mississippi in 2050 merits such spending. Though half of that money would come from a barge industry trust fund, the alliance of budget hawks and environmental watchdogs on Capitol Hill must be persuaded that Congress would not be abetting destructive and wasteful construction. To handle the economic portions of its study, the corps named Donald Sweeney, a 22-year veteran in its St. Louis District.

The corps has seen skeptics within its ranks before; in the 1930s, Maj. Charles Hall, commander of the Rock Island District, argued to his superiors that new dams were a risky investment for taxpayers. But nothing in corps history prepared it for the explosive revelations that surfaced during the Sweeney-led study.

Several years into that study, the corps’ brass was disturbed and downright angered by Sweeney’s findings, much as they rejected Charles Hall’s conclusions 60 years before. Sweeney didn’t back down. Finally, in 1998, he was relieved of his supervisory duties in the study, not long after a corps official accused him of being “out to shut down the corps.”

Over the years, the corps had been accused by its detractors of rigging analyses to make the case for the water projects that the corps desires for its own growth and that its allies in Congress want for their districts.

What Sweeney disclosed last year — and what would largely be upheld during investigations afterward — lent credence to what the corps’ critics had been saying.

In an affidavit he filed with the Office of Special Counsel in Washington, D.C., Sweeney, who had played football at Knox College in Galesburg, delivered a bruising hit to the corps. Armed with a sheath of internal documents and e-mails, he alleged that the corps had “intentionally and deliberately altered” data to support the case for doubling the size of five locks on the Mississippi River and two on the Illinois. He accused the corps of low-balling construction costs, of ignoring economists’ suggestions about ways to reduce barge congestion and of prolonging the study while searching for the answers it wanted.

Corps officials vigorously disputed the charges and before long, Sweeney, who had been entrusted with challenging assignments during his long career, found himself copying down addresses in East St. Louis in connection with a flood control project. But 10 months later, a report from the army’s inspector general raised its own troubling specter of what had transpired during the study.

The Pentagon investigation concluded in a blistering report that top corps officers had indeed altered crucial data to justify the lock expansion. The report found what it called “a widespread perception of bias” within the corps in favor of large-scale water projects. What’s more, the report said, the corps’ zeal to please Congress worked to “create an atmosphere where objectivity in its analyses was placed in jeopardy.”

The investigations weren’t finished. Earlier this year, the National Academy of Sciences also found flaws in the study and recommended that Mississippi River construction be delayed. Rather than expensive construction, the panel of scientists concluded that “shippers and towboat operators could enjoy immediate improvements through better traffic management.” By then, the Mississippi River study had been halted. And the proposed construction sought by farm groups, the barge industry and their allies in Congress looked dead. But was it?

By this spring, it looked as though Congress and the corps itself had a short memory, a bout of forgetfulness due in part to the changes of administration in Washington. In the waning months of President Bill Clinton’s administration, after the damning revelations, the Army tried to rein in the corps by firmly reinstating civilian control and banning lobbying by corps officials. But those reforms were blunted by objections from powerful committee chairmen in the Republican-controlled Senate. This year, with Clinton’s combative appointees out the door, it looked as though the corps might escape the white-hot heat of 2000 all but unsinged.

In congressional hearings, there was little of the criticism that had sounded in the aftermath of the Mississippi River study fiasco. The demeanor of corps officials, including Lt. Gen. Robert B. Flowers, the corp’s commanding general, changed from contrite to defiant. “What galls me the most is the conclusion we have a bias toward large construction. How you can draw that conclusion from one study is beyond me,” Flowers declared while testifying to a House Appropriations subcommittee. 

The panel’s chairman, Rep. Sonny Callahan, an Alabama Republican, echoed a widely held sentiment in Congress when he said: “These are not pork projects. These are projects to help people and make this a better country.”

There were even rumors that supporters of lock extension on the Mississippi might begin the appropriations process for the $1 billion it would take without having the corps’ epic study completed.

But in the aftermath of Jeffords’ “one-man coup,” as one of his detractors put it, the political scenery once again looks different in Washington — as different as the scenery that Rep. Ron Kind, a Wisconsin Democrat who has a keen interest in Mississippi River issues, woke up to on Easter morning.

What Kind remembers from the morning of April 15 at his Mississippi River home on French Island, near La Crosse, was unusual indeed. “When Tawni and I woke up, the Mississippi was to the east of us rather than the west,” Kind says. The floodwaters had overtaken the first floor of Kind’s home, prompting an unanticipated canoe voyage to safety by Kind, his wife Tawni, and their two sons, Johnny, 4, and Matthew, 2. The family left the cat behind, safe and happy, Kind emphasizes, with the run of the second floor.

Back in Washington, Kind shortly would be assuaged at the prospect of his Mississippi River legislation faring better as a result of the shifting fortunes of his Democratic Party.

One of his measures sounds like something he and his neighbors could use. His proposed Flood Loss Reduction Bill would increase the availability of payments that encourage people to move to higher ground and therefore avoid flood losses. Another of Kind’s measures aims at getting a handle on the nutrient pollution in the Mississippi with studies providing the scientific proof needed to win “green payments” from Congress to farmers willing to change their methods. 

Then there’s Kind’s proposed Corps of Engineers Reform Act, a controversial piece of legislation that grew from the disclosures surrounding the Mississippi River study. Kind’s measure requires review of corps water projects like the Mississippi River lock extension by outside experts and brings the public more fully into the planning. It ranks environmental concerns with economic considerations during decision-making rather than regarding conservation as an afterthought. A few months ago, such legislation was not assured even of a committee hearing. But with the power shift in Washington and an identical bill introduced in the Senate by another Wisconsin Democrat, Sen. Russ Feingold, some measure of corps reform seems quite possible in the months ahead.

Kind describes the difficulties his legislation had faced. The corps, he says, “is often viewed by members of Congress as their own personal infrastructure agency for projects back home. So you get a lot of members who are reluctant to criticize the corps.”

Rather than sweeping charges under the rug, the new Senate majority leader, Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, had sponsored legislation to investigate the corps. What he had seen, Daschle said previously, “raises serious questions about the accountability and integrity of the corps.”

Meanwhile, the corps was wondering if it bit off more than it could chew in trying to look so far into the Mississippi River’s future. Hoping to get the study back on track this summer, the corps was entertaining recommendations that it might be wiser to predict 10 or 15 years rather than a half-century into the future.

As for Mississippi River construction, the Democratic takeover makes it more difficult and perhaps impossible for supporters in Congress to orchestrate spending authorization until the corps finishes some sort of study. Says Faber of Environmental Defense: “It eliminates any chance that lock extension will be approved in this session of Congress.”

Sen. James Jeffords, a conservationist in the mold of Theodore Roosevelt and the man who stood in Vermont and set in motion all the changes, may have even more to say about the future of the Mississippi River than he already has. After his history-making party switch, he was rewarded by Democrats with an offer to chair the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. 

Bill Lambrecht covers resource issues in Washington, D.C., for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. His book about the politics of biotechnology, Dinner at the New Gene Cafe, will be published in September by St. Martin’s Press. His articles for Illinois Issues on that topic appeared in November 1998 and September 1999.

Illinois Issues, July/August 2001

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