When St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and 11 other mayors from cities along the Mississippi River went to Washington, D.C., last month to bring attention to the nation’s most important waterway, the dominant problem on their minds was drought.

Today, for many of those mayors, it’s flooding.

Either way, the complaint expressed by Slay during that visit hits home.

“There is no plan for the whole river,” Slay said.

One of the mayors with Slay on that trip was Jo Anne Smiley of the tiny river town of Clarksville, just upriver from St. Louis. That town today sits protected by sandbags, parts of it underwater, residents holding out hope that the rain in today’s forecast doesn’t cause a significant rise in the river.

There will be times when the Mississippi will defy man’s efforts to control it. But officials can minimize those times by developing a plan for the entire watershed. They never have.

The Army Corps of Engineers reacts to the weather, trying to keep the river open to navigation by managing water flows in a vital artery that each year transports more than 100 million tons of goods to harbors for export.

When the weather changes, politicians representing river interests push against the corps, or pull with it. Sometimes they want more water released from upstream dams. Sometimes they want it held back. Usually they do the bidding of big farming interests.

The cycle repeats itself over and over again, in part because there is no overarching plan for managing the river to assure its health and balance competing interests.

Anyone who has been paying attention knows that these cycles of drought and flood are getting closer together and more intense.

Hence the status quo in the Heartland: Massive flooding in 2011. Historic drought in 2012 and early 2013. And now, more flooding, bad enough to cause 100 barges in St. Louis to break from the moorings this weekend, damaging a bridge and causing untold millions of dollars in damage.

Here’s the sad reality: It’s going to get worse before it gets better.

This year, the federal General Accountability Office issued its biennial report to Congress that outlines areas in which the government faces massive financial risks because of situations it is ill-prepared to deal with, be they cybersecurity, or problems on Wall Street, for instance.

For the first time, climate change made the list, in part because of the extreme weather that has been near constant in the past couple of years.

Disaster declarations rose, for instance, from 65 in 2004 to 98 in 2011, with the federal government committing more than $80 billion in disaster aid during that time, even before Hurricane Sandy.

The federal government’s two programs to help mitigate the uncertainty to farmers are flood and crop insurance. Both are woefully outdated. Sometimes they actually provide incentives for risky practices, like building or farming in high-risk areas. Consider that farmers had near-record profits during the 2012 drought.

While Mississippi River cities and states haven’t even developed a plan, Missouri River states have come to realize that their existing plan, developed in 1944, is woefully outdated. In large part, that’s because it’s driven by the navigation industry, which is far less critical than it is on the Mississippi. This makes no sense.

Neither does this: According to the rules Congress has developed, the corps isn’t allowed to jointly manage the two great, connected rivers. It matters not that the flow of the Missouri goes right into the Mississippi above St. Louis. As far as the federal government is concerned, the rivers are two disconnected pipes.

This is not a new problem, nor is it an easy one. But it must be resolved, and Congress must find the political will to both elevate the importance of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers while recognizing the need for a plan that takes climate change into account.

Here’s what we wrote last year, as drought was gripping the region. It’s just as true today as the Mississippi River overtops sandbags:

“Until Congress commits to a new river management plan that treats the entire Missouri and Mississippi river basins as one system, the cycles will continue: Droughts and flood, conflict between environmental needs and economic ones. Regional gridlock will continue. Taxpayers will be left in constant disaster mode, throwing good money after bad, never fixing the real problem.”


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