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Mississippi flooding: Let the river run

What began on the upper Missouri River in 1951 is playing out this month in the flooding of the lower Mississippi and dozens of communities in its delta.

May 25, 2011|By Paul VanDevelder

Confounding all skeptics, the two plans were merged into a monolithic project at a meeting in Omaha, Neb., in 1944. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the bill into law, the powerful National Farmer's Union president, James Patton, called it "a shameless, loveless, shotgun wedding," and predicted it would turn into another hydraulic disaster built by the Army Corps of Engineers. An editorial at the time in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch agreed, calling it "the most gigantic boondoggle in American history."

While congressmen from the Missouri Valley states were toasting Pick-Sloan, the interim director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, William Brophy, sat down and wrote a letter to Martin Cross, the chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara nations. Cross' people — the tribes that kept Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery from starvation in the frigid winter of 1804-05 — were the first of 23 bands and tribes of Indians scheduled to lose treaty-protected homelands to Pick-Sloan. After encouraging the chairman to make as many friends as possible on the Senate's Indian committee, he closed by saying, "There is nothing in Washington, D.C., that is easier to swallow, or harder to kill, than a bad idea."

As a career bureaucrat at Interior, Brophy was well-schooled on the Missouri. He was probably one of the few people in Washington who read the corps' 1,245-page report on the river, which was presented to Congress in 1934 by the chief of engineers, Maj. Gen. Lytle Brown. Brown hoped that the five-year investigation would shut the door on politicians' dreams of water projects on the upper Missouri once and for all. Foreshadowing the warnings of 21st century hydrologists, Brown predicted that damming the upper Missouri would make management of the Mississippi — and protection of New Orleans — almost impossible in big runoff years. He cautioned lawmakers that given the underlying geology of the region and the notorious siltation issues associated with the river, only madmen would build dams above Sioux City, Iowa.

But three huge Missouri River floods in 1943 carried away towns, livestock, bridges, farmhouses and sound reasoning, and brought the madmen back to the table. Dry-land farmers were promised a million acres of irrigation if they would back Pick-Sloan. They backed it en masse, but those irrigation projects have never been built. Two dozen tribes were dispersed and relocated, with devastating consequences that they live with to this day. Garrison Dam, large enough to capture five times the annual flow of the Colorado River, is today so compromised by the siltation problems Brown warned about that the dam could be useless within two generations. Water behind those dams — brimful this spring — has only one place to go: downstream into an already swollen Mississippi.

Our legacy to the next generations is a catalogue that bristles with similar narratives. Are we never going to learn that the flotsam of our invincible ignorance will always come back to haunt us on a rising tide?

Paul VanDevelder's book "Savages and Scoundrels: The Untold Story of America's Road to Empire Through Indian Territory," won the 2011 Oregon Book Award.

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