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Advocacy Group Labels Lower Missouri, Raccoon Rivers Among Most Endangered In The U.S.

Paddlers gather on the Missouri River. The organization American Rivers has named the Lower Missouri the second most endangered river in the nation this year due to flood management issues.
Courtesy of Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper
Paddlers gather on the Missouri River. The organization American Rivers has named the Lower Missouri the second most endangered river in the nation this year due to flood management issues.

The Lower Missouri and Raccoon Rivers are among the top 10 most endangered rivers in the country this year, according to the national advocacy group American Rivers. The organization is calling for concerted action at all levels of government to address flood management and the regulation of agricultural pollution, issues which pose threats to human health and safety.

Lower Missouri named #2 most endangered

American Rivers has named the branch of the Lower Missouri which runs from Sioux City to St. Louis as the 2nd most endangered river in the nation this year, pointing to an “antiquated” flood management system that it says artificially constricts the river, decimating wildlife habitat and actually increasing flood risks.

“We know that many levees are too close to the river and that moving levees back will give the river room to flood safely and restore valuable floodplain habitat,” Eileen Shader of American Rivers said in a written statement. “It’s time for the Army Corps, lower Missouri River states, willing landowners and all those who care about the Missouri River to work together to improve public safety and restore the Missouri River.”

Extensive human geoengineering has transformed what was once a dynamic, complex and biologically diverse river system threaded with sandbars, side channels and backwaters.

Over the past century, engineers have tried to tame the massive river, straightening and channelizing it through a massive system of levees in order to allow for commercial navigation. In the process, 99 percent of the river’s islands and sandbars have disappeared, according to a history compiled by the U.S. Geological Survey.

A push to reconnect the Missouri to its historic floodplain

According to American Rivers, in recent years, 850 miles of levees in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska have been damaged during flood events as the Missouri overtops the structures and the floodwaters return to the river’s historic footprint, where communities have since built homes and businesses and farmers have carved out cropland. Repair costs for the levees are estimated at $2 billion.

Scientists have long known that levees make flooding worse by raising the height of rivers and speeding up their flow rates. Advocates are calling on government officials to stop the cycle of rebuilding failed levees too close to the main channel of the river at great cost to taxpayers, particularly as they brace for future climate change impacts which are expected to increase flooding rain events.

Instead, researchers and conservationists want to build setback levees and reconnect parts of the river to its floodplain, efforts which could entail buying out private land and relocating individual residents or even whole communities.

“Folks along the Missouri River know floods are increasing, but sometimes it’s hard to break from failed, outdated so called “solutions.” Citizens and taxpayers need leadership to advance the changes we have long known are needed,” said Caroline Pufalt of the Sierra Club’s Missouri River Network. “The Missouri River needs room to expand and connect with its historical floodplain. By doing that in some places, we can help protect other places where towns and farms can more safely enjoy proximity to the river.”

Raccoon River named #9 most endangered

Agricultural pollution is the group’s main concern for the Raccoon River, which is a key source of drinking water for the city of Des Moines and more than 500,000 central Iowans, as well as a recreational area for local communities. The organization points to the state’s thousands of confined animal feeding operations and the enormous amount of waste that they produce, much of which is spread on farm fields “often at rates that exceed the soil’s ability to absorb it."

Des Moines Water Works CEO Ted Corrigan said he’s not surprised by the listing.

“I don't think it should be a surprise to anyone,” Corrigan said. “The Raccoon River has been impaired for both nutrients and bacteria for many years. It's a source of drinking water for 500,000 people in central Iowa. And the combination of those two things, I think, makes it a good candidate for the list, unfortunately.”

Despite private livestock confinements producing sheer volumes of waste comparable to some cities, in Iowa this scale of animal waste is not required to be treated and processed in the way that municipalities must process human waste.

While livestock manure can be a valuable fertilizer for cropland when used in the right proportions, whether conditions, crop development and the sheer logistics of handling it can make it very difficult to apply properly, with serious consequences for the state’s rivers and streams.

And the sheer scale of manure produced is staggering. According to an analysis by University of Iowa researcher Chris Jones, the number of people, hogs, chickens, turkey and cattle in the Upper Raccoon River watershed produce an amount of waste equivalent to the human population of Tokyo; in the Lower Raccoon River watershed, the waste is comparable to that of Chicago.

Agricultural runoff polluting drinking water for state’s largest city

Agricultural runoff has driven up nutrient levels in waters across the state, contributing to toxic algae blooms that can make it unsafe for recreation, killing fish and other wildlife, and leaving rivers contaminated with levels of nitrates that exceed the U.S. EPA’s safe drinking water levels.

Nutrient levels in the Raccoon and other tributaries of the Mississippi River also contribute to the pollution of waters downstream and fuel the growth of the so-called “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, with serious impacts for tourism and commercial fishing in multiple states.

The national advocacy organization American Rivers has named the Raccoon River among the most endangered in the country due to agricultural pollution that is threatening drinking water sources that some 500,000 Iowans rely on.
The national advocacy organization American Rivers has named the Raccoon River among the most endangered in the country due to agricultural pollution that is threatening drinking water sources that some 500,000 Iowans rely on.

”The state of Iowa has favored the profits of massive agribusinesses over the interests of Iowans for far too long. We cannot continue to disregard the serious harms of unrestricted agricultural pollution,” said community organizer Abigail Landhuis, of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. “While the factory farm industry rakes in massive profits throughout Iowa, rural residents, independent family farmers and Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian and Pacific Islander communities are enduring disproportionate hardships as our water, our soil, and our climate are devastated by corporate polluters.”

The sheer scale of agricultural pollutants has forced the DMWW to continuously find new ways to keep its source water in the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers below federal standards for safe drinking, including installing one of the largest nitrate removal systems in the world.

Last summer, the utility was put under pressure when levels of toxic microcystins from an algae bloom in the Des Moines River exceeded federal safe standards for 110 days in a row, while at the same time drought conditions and agricultural runoff constrained the use of the Raccoon River, underscoring the threat that emerging contaminants and extreme weather conditions made worse by climate change are posing.

American Rivers is calling on the EPA to significantly and immediately ramp up monitoring of livestock operations in the watershed to ensure operators are meeting water quality standards. Corrigan says he wants to see state officials develop a firm timeline and specific metrics to implement its voluntary Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which was implemented in 2013 and which American Rivers described as “fundamentally inadequate” approach that has “failed spectacularly."

“Our perspective is these are waters of the state, the state should take responsibility for protecting them. Given that the nutrient reduction strategy is their stated policy, they need to develop an implementation plan and a timeline,” Corrigan said.

A spokesperson for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources declined to comment on the report from American Rivers.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter