Diamonds in the Rough

Our "Big Muddy," the Missouri River, has always been unruly, but in 1993 and again in 1995 it became especially temperamental. With six upstream dams affecting its flow, and channelization and levees girdling the river on its downstream reaches, the Missouri River simply rebelled.

Heavy rains falling on saturated soils caused devastating floods. Costs in property and human suffering were immense. Many other rivers also flooded, but impacts along the Missouri were especially damaging.

A few Missourians are only now recovering. Some once-productive (and vitally important) agricultural lands may never recover. But the receding waters and public dialogue that followed exposed what may be the finest opportunity in decades to improve the way we coexist with our big rivers and their floodplains.

The floods showed the public that society may have gone too far in confining the flows and regulating the actions of this mighty river. By narrowing the river's channel and elevating the height of levees, people had actually worsened prospects for flood damage when floods exceeded the height of adjacent levees.

We had created a false sense of security. In addition, the process of water overtopping the levees created high energy impacts - scour and sand deposits - that would have been less damaging had the river simply spilled from its banks onto its floodplain.

If we provide the Missouri River with a little elbow room, floods might be less damaging. The river and its floodplain are vitally important to Missouri for their agricultural production and fish and wildlife habitat. The river also has a role in commerce.

In response to the flooding, Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan formed a Task Force on Floodplain Management to reassess the costly situation. The task force asked the Conservation Department to make a plan to purchase some floodplain lands from willing sellers.

The Missouri Conservation Commission heeded that recommendation by providing money and directing Conservation Department staff members to work closely with other agencies involved in flood responses. Staff members also helped to seek money from partner organizations.

An important grant was obtained from the North American Wetlands Conservation Council under provisions of the North American Wetlands Conservation Act. Ducks Unlimited and the National Wild Turkey Federation provided additional funding, while The Nature Conservancy, Quail Unlimited, land donors and other organizations also helped.

Thus far the Conservation Department has purchased about 14,000 acres of land in the floodplain of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers in an effort known as the Partnership for