Adsactly Education: Missouri River Part 3
In the first part of this series (available here) we covered the flow, geology and early history of the indigenous people of the Missouri. The second part (available here) detailed the part the river played in the westward expansion of the US.
Bridges and Dams
Do you think the first Transcontinental Railroad in the US actually connected the East and West coasts? You would be mistaken. The road actually ran from Omaha Nebraska to Sacramento California. The reason for that is because there was no bridge over the Missouri River. The Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869 but the bridge that actually connected to the east coast lines wasn’t built until 1872. Passengers could ride from New York City to near the river where they disembarked and rode a ferry across to Omaha where they picked up the train for Sacramento.
There is no possible way to overstate or overestimate the importance of the Railroads in the settlement of the Western United States. That bridge that the Union Pacific built over the Missouri River averaged 320 freight trains crossing it every 24 hours by 1888 when a new bridge was built.
The railroads changed the way the country viewed itself. The overland transcontinental travel time was reduced from at least 6 weeks to 6 days. People in the east started viewing the west as a part of the United States rather than some exotic place on the other side of the continent. Goods and materials flowed both ways over the plains. Products manufactured in the east built the west and raw material and food poured into the east.
The first dam on the river was Black Eagle Dam in the area of Great Falls Montana was built in 1891. It was built as a hydro electric project to bring power to Montana. It diverted part of the flow of the river into a hydro producing reservoir. In all, there are 5 hydro producing dams, all on the upper Missouri and all built by the 1930s. The Corps of Engineer Dams also produce a large amount of electricity making the Missouri a very large producer of power.
More imposing and impressive are the ‘flood control’ structures built by the Army Corps of Engineers. There are a total of six of these starting at the Ft. Peck dam in Montana and ending with Gavins Point Dam in Missouri. They were conceived after a number of serious floods that inundated cities and towns. Ft. Peck dam was constructed as a public works project during the great depression and completed in 1940. The six big dams built by the Corps of Engineers have huge reservoirs behind them which can hold up to three years of total flow of the river, making the reservoir system one of the largest in the world.
The impoundment basins behind the dams also provide irrigation water to more than 7500 sq miles (19,000 sq. km) of farmland, some of the most productive land on earth.
Original navigation of the Missouri River was accomplished by the Native Americans with canoes and leather skinned boats. The fur traders started using rafts and barges to haul the furs to St. Louis where they were sold to furriers from the eastern US.
The first known Steamboat on the river was in service by 1819 ferrying mostly passengers going west and furs and timber going east. The Missouri was not as predictable as the Mississippi but there were still a large number of Steamboats running the river by the time of the Civil War. Shortly after the war the railroads started cutting into the Steamboat business and they all but disappeared from the river by the turn of the 20th Century.
By the early 20th Century engineers started straightening and deepening parts of the river so tugs could push barges all the way to Sioux City Iowa. As early as 1925 the Army Corps of Engineers took over building and maintaining the shipping channel in the Missouri. Small ‘wing dams’ and dredging made a relatively straight and clear channel to Sioux City. The Corps maintains that channel yet today.
A River at Risk
There are multiple factors which put the Missouri at risk. The long run through the alluvial Great Plains generates a staggering amount of sediment which can block channels and leave shipping traffic high and dry.
Construction of the ship channel has actually helped the sediment problem on the River but that sediment is piling up behind dams and naturally occuring barriers. At some point the dredging and channelization will not work. Coupled with a huge reduction in barge tonnage on the river there is talk about letting the river take it’s course which would put people and business at risk during a flood event.
Most of the river’s naturally occuring riparian zone in the multiple floodplains along the river have been removed in favor of farmland. This leads to terrible water quality from agricultural runoff and the increased flow zones when levees are constructed to protect the farmlands. It also leads to increased flood damage downstream because the historic flooding zones took some of the fury out of high water events. By protecting those zones with levees and channels more water ends up downstream faster. A bad mix in a flood event.
Manufacturing and industry along the river have also contributed to the degraded water quality, particularly in the lower river.
The Missouri has proven to be susceptible to global warming with it’s epic changes in flow rate. Two huge flood events and a prolonged drought already this century hint at more bad outcomes to people living along the river.
The Missouri River is a river at risk, and much of that risk has been generated by human engineering. For a waterway that is so vital to the well being of the entire continent amazingly little attention is being paid to it’s long term health.
While the words and ideas in this post are strictly those of the author this source was referred to by me to insure numerical and historical accuracy.
Wikipedia: Missouri River
Unsourced Photos are used courtesy of the author.
Authored by: @bigtom13
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