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Neither a Canal nor a Natural Stream: It’s Time We Returned Our ‘Stranals’ to Proper Rivers

Posted on October 23, 2023

Rivers were once valued for their spiritual meaning and the sustenance they provided, but today they are primarily valued as highways for transportation.

There wouldn’t be waterways without ports, and while many communities believe they need ports to serve their local economies, they often can’t afford the costs of keeping them open. Elvis Stahr Harbor in Hickman, Kentucky, sits in an area that draws a lot of silt. At a public meeting I attended in 2019, a port representative said they needed about $915,000 a year in dredging to stay open, which the port authority couldn’t afford. Thanks to some creative redefinitions of what constitutes the navigation channel, the cost of dredging Hickman’s port is now covered by federal tax dollars, as is dredging at several other ports in the Corps’ Memphis District. In 2022, the Corps spent over $7 million on dredging to keep a channel open into those ports.

In St. Louis, the Port Authority leases the land they own to raise money to cover operations and maintenance, but when they wanted to expand the port and improve rail and truck access, they couldn’t do it without a $16 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration. Inland ports often depend on federal grants or appropriations to expand or improve port infrastructure.

Environmental Damages

Navigation advocates argue that barge shipping is environmentally friendly. Their claim hinges on the narrow argument that barges discharge fewer harmful emissions than the trucks that would replace them. (If you’re anywhere in the Midwest during harvest season, though, you know that an army of trucks already moves grain from fields to silos.) This assertion is, at the least, misleading. While the diesel engines that move barges may produce fewer emissions than trucks carrying the same amount of cargo, emissions from today’s trains are similar to barges—and our approach to making rivers friendly for barges has so fundamentally damaged the ecologies of our rivers, that any claims of being environmentally friendly are disingenuous at best.

Today, we value rivers primarily as highways; this hasn’t always been the case. While indigenous North Americans traveled widely by water, a river was far more than a way to get around. Rivers were imbued with deep spiritual meaning, and they were valued for the sustenance they provided. Big rivers are, after all, highly productive biological communities. Historically, the upper Mississippi supported 35 times more fish per acre than the prized sport fishing lakes of northern Minnesota and Canada. Hundreds of species of birds and fish depend on big rivers for their lives.

Navigation dams, though, change the fundamental nature of a river from a continuously free-flowing stream to a series of slackwater pools. The dams permanently raised water levels, which has been enormously consequential. Just upriver of the dams, waves and wind erode islands, creating wide areas of open water. While all that open water stretching from bank to bank is pretty to look at, it’s not good for the plants and animals that evolved over thousands of generations to depend on the river’s backwater islands and channels. Navigation dams also trap sediment, which is piling up in the backwaters and making many channels inaccessible or filling them in outright.

The damage caused by navigation structures is significant enough that Congress created another program to fix some of it, then handed the responsibility (and funding) for it to the Corps. Environmental restoration is expensive, too, and is also paid for entirely with public money.

Immune to Criticism

I wish I could claim to be the first one to notice the problems with waterways, but I’m not. In 2000, Washington Post reporter Michael Grunwald wrote a series of articles highlighting many of these same issues. That same year, two groups who view the world through different ideological lenses, the National Wildlife Federation and Taxpayers for Common Sense, collaborated on a report that criticized the Corps for pursuing “… environmentally harmful, financially wasteful water resource projects” that “often fall short of their objectives and too often disregard fundamental fiscal and environmental responsibilities.” The report highlighted 25 projects they considered especially egregious, including locks and dams on many rivers. The report concluded that the Corps is “heavily biased toward large-scale construction solutions.”

In 2013, Christopher Helman wrote in Forbes that “…despite the massive profits rung up by companies like Cargill and Ingram, the river barge business has become a ward of government largesse. Washington picks up more of the cost of riverborne shipping than any other type of logistics enterprise in the U.S. except, perhaps, resupplying the International Space Station.”

Midwest business interests, irritated by perceived price gouging from railroads, advocated unsuccessfully for decades for the federal government to build locks and dams on the upper Mississippi. They finally succeeded when the idea was recast as a Depression-era public works project and the idea of waterways as critical infrastructure took root. Midwestern politicians dutifully line up to funnel money into waterways—regardless of party affiliation—to appease agricultural interests. And politicians have often seen waterways as an easy way to direct money back home, the quintessential pork barrel projects. Look no further than the Red River, or, as it is officially known today, the J. Bennett Johnson Waterway.

I’ll offer another reason that this state of affairs has continued. Most people don’t care, while those who benefit from this system care very much. And those who care have money and influence. While it’s also true that the calm water behind the dams is popular with some recreational boaters, very few of them need a nine-foot channel year round. And those recreational boaters don’t pay for the costs, either, except in the same way that the rest of us do—through the federal income tax.

Returning Waterways to Rivers

Rivers are complex, dynamic systems that support diverse and abundant life. High water (floods) is a feature, not a problem, as is low water. Some life thrives because of high water; other life needs low water to take root. Life in the system goes on, regardless.

Waterways are transportation routes managed solely for maintaining enough water to move bulk goods. They shut down when the water runs too low or too high. Waterways may not be stroads, but maybe we can call them stranals. They aren’t quite canals, but neither are they like the natural streams that they once were. They have been redesigned for the efficient use of a single type of transportation—bulk shipping—and sold with promises of economic benefits that never materialize. They rig rivers for one particular use and drain those rivers of ecological viability and their ability to manage themselves naturally. And they send a strong message that other types of uses are heavily discouraged. Waterways today are engineered systems that are more orderly than natural rivers, but they are increasingly dumb.

We will, at some point, need action at the federal level, where all the big decisions get made today. At a minimum, the least-trafficked waterways should be decommissioned and defunded. Restoring waterways to streams will also cost money, but I’m confident that we can come up with cost-effective, incremental steps to get us there. In addition, the businesses that benefit from this system should pay a much greater share of the costs of building, operating, and maintaining it. I would start by figuring out just how much those industries could actually afford to pay, then design a system with that money.

We should also demand greater transparency in the cost-benefit analyses. I’m not a Harvard-trained economist or trade expert, but I am a person who pays federal taxes. I’d prefer these analyses prioritize public benefits when public money is spent.

My most ambitious ask is to remove river management from engineers. They should be consultants, absolutely, but the river should be managed by a broad coalition of people who represent the many ways we engage with the river: boaters and paddlers, hikers, people who fish, biologists, painters, mayors, industry, and anyone else invested in the river’s future.

Absent federal action, we aren’t helpless at the local level, though. Communities on waterways, for example, could conduct their own analyses of how they benefit from barge transportation on waterways. Is serving that transportation niche the most productive use of a local community’s riverfront property, or might there be more productive alternatives?

River towns can also do more to give people reasons to spend time along our rivers. After all, it’s hard for folks to care about something abstract. We don’t need large-scale, master-planned makeovers for this to happen, though. Just make it easier for folks to get to the river, then give them a reason to stick around for a bit. Maybe just a couple of nice benches. I’m sure local communities can come up with a lot more ideas for ways to maximize the benefits of being located next to a river.

Maybe the best incremental action is easily done by anyone: go spend some time along a river yourself. Enjoy a sunset (or sunrise) over a sandbar as a flock of pelicans rise high into the sky. Watch as whirligig beetles skim across the water’s surface, darting over mussel beds and channel catfish. Keep quiet and maybe you’ll see a blue heron stalking prey along the shoreline, or a beaver emerge from the backwaters in search of limbs to fortify its home. Then imagine a future where all of that is valued as highly as the publicly subsidized transport of dried corn from Midwest fields to the mouths of livestock in Mexico or China.


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