River of No Change

All it takes to save the Missouri River is for everyone to agree on everything.

“WHAT DOES IT MEAN to be where we are today?” Gail Bingham asks a crowd of powerful, mostly white men. “Where we are” is in a hotel convention center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Seated around an enormous horseshoe table are 44 stakeholders in the operation of North America’s longest river, representing a watershed the size of Western Europe. They’re here to play the biggest game of policy compromise in the history of American rivers: helping to restore what’s left of Missouri River ecology, particularly by saving three federally threatened and endangered species, the interior least tern, piping plover, and pallid sturgeon.

Bingham, the chair of the committee, continues. “There are very few, if any, multi-stakeholder, science-based collaborative efforts like this at this scale in the country. The scale is amazing. That means there will be difficult conversations.”

Many of the people in the room have historically been bitter enemies, ideologically opposed to how the river should be managed. They’re here, ostensibly, to make peace.

The Missouri River meanders from the Rocky Mountains in western Montana, through the oil fields of North Dakota, past tribal lands in South Dakota, and along the Loess Hills of Iowa, before flushing through the table-wine valleys of Missouri and pouring into the Mississippi at Saint Louis, Missouri. One-seventh of America drains into it. Over the past 80 years, more than 8,000 structures, including revetments, dams, and wing dikes, have transformed two-thirds of that river into lakes and canals. The ecosystem has been altered so drastically that, according to the US Army Corps of Engineers, 51 of 67 native species are now rare, uncommon, or decreasing.

The committee, congressionally formed in 2008, is known as the Missouri River Recovery and Implementation Committee, or more commonly by its acronym, MRRIC (pronounced Mr. Ric). Its job is to make official recommendations to the Army Corps of Engineers, which effectively manages the Missouri, on how to implement the Missouri River Recovery Program, established in 2000. Implementation requires mitigating disastrous ecological effects wrought on the river by the nation’s biggest system of reservoirs and channelization structures.

It’s not the only committee like it in the United States, but it might be the biggest, with 16 stakeholder groups. The bill for its two to four meetings per year (along with several smaller work groups, science reviews, and conference calls) ranges from $1 to $2.5 million a year. In some ways, the river’s future is determined by the MRRIC council, whose members represent some 10 million constituents. The group must vote unanimously on any recommendation it makes, though their recommendations to the Army Corps are non-binding. Imagine if Congress had 16 parties and needed unanimous votes to pass any bill. That requirement forces MRRIC to become perhaps the most constrained exercise in group compromise in American environmental policy.

Crusty, leather-vested river pilot Bill Beacom sits next to farmer Leo Ettleman; environmentalist Caroline Pufalt sits next to thermal power representative Brian Barels; fidgeting barge rep Tom Horgan sits next to the articulate, clean-cut Big Ag rep Dan Engemann; recreationist Terry Fleck is in the corner by himself; long-haired, scraggly-bearded scientist David Galat is next to Kip Spotted Eagle, representing the Yankton Sioux Tribe.

Photo by Alamy /UPI.
Damming and channelization have drastically changed water speed, depth, and temperature in parts of the Missouri, to the detriment of river ecosystems and native species. Photo by Alamy /UPI.

Caucuses form and dissolve like clouds. The collective concerns of these stakeholders are not exactly diametric, but rather occupy equidistant points around the full circle of river logic. The primary point of agreement is that the river is wet, and from there people diverge.

Barge captains and farmers, for example, get along (they both believe ecological restoration is bad for business), but they are not kin (farmers want the river low and captains want it high). Upstream fishermen in North Dakota resent Missouri gravel dredgers for stealing their water, although in flood years Missouri is happy to give it to them. Environmentalists mostly sit quietly while everyone else berates them. Some tribes consider fish to be relatives in need of protection. Others, like the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe’s Bob Walters, would eat the endangered pallid sturgeon if it were up to them. Dr. Galat wants the science to be right. Tom Horgan wants the science to be on his side. In this room of lobbyists, river rats, scientists, farmers, politicians, Indigenous leaders, and bureaucrats, anyone can veto anything with an imperial thumbs down.

MRRIC sees itself as a model for adaptive management to be applied elsewhere. But trying to manage a 2,300-mile river with unanimous consent is a diplomatic undertaking of unprecedented scale. To function, the committee has had to hire RESOLVE, an NGO that moderates large-scale negotiations, and the US Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution, a congressionally established organization that facilitates multi-party environmental problem-solving on issues involving the federal government. These groups have a presence at every MRRIC plenary meeting. I attended one in Sioux Falls for three days to find out if it could actually work.

TO KICK THINGS OFF, a mediator from RESOLVE, Paul De Morgan, stands and summarizes the consent agenda, a collection of procedural, non-controversial fluff that must be gotten out of the way at the outset. It’s routine and boring, full of jargon, and most people are lending fractional attention. At last, De Morgan puts the agenda to a vote so they can get on to important matters. One by one everyone affirms, until the wave of thumbs reaches Elizabeth Wakeman, who represents the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe of eastern South Dakota. She has cropped hair and dark glasses in front of permanently narrowed eyes. Her thumb points down.

“You’re having (tribes) vote on things they don’t even know what they’re voting on,” she says, pointing to several tribe members who already look overwhelmed. “I don’t understand that at all.” As independent governments, tribes, along with federal and state agencies, were determined not necessary for a quorum when the MRRIC charter was drafted — although, importantly, they and the states do have thumb-pointing power. Most tribal representatives elect to stay home when the meetings are far away. Those attending often feel they’re playing catch-up throughout the process, which includes inch-thick stacks of reading material between meetings.

De Morgan looks flustered. “One of the requirements of participation is to review the materials in advance,” he says. “Sometimes that doesn’t happen. We understand it’s challenging to stay afloat in this process. But then you as an individual need to make a judgment as to whether or not it’s worth rejecting something that everyone else is supporting.”

On the river there are different languages spoken, which often inhabit distant corners of the English language.

Tom Horgan, representing the Missouri River navigation industry, raises his card to speak; he’s also confused. David Shorr, representing waterway industries, has a wordsmithing issue with the agenda. Wakeman requests to put the entire vote off until later. Suddenly, it seems like MRRIC is stumbling right out of the starting gate. At last, Bill Beacom, MRRIC’s least bureaucratic member, takes the mic.

“Elizabeth is beating herself up because she can’t read 300 pages and understand everything in it. Nobody else at this table can, either. There’s not one person that can read 300 pages of this gobbledygook and figure out what the hell it says. If we were to have a meeting next week and it was how to build a nuclear bomb, and we had all week to read 180 pages, nobody could build a nuclear bomb at the end of that week regardless. You don’t have the background and you don’t have the expertise. We’re just going to have to establish a level of trust to where you actually have to depend on some of the people around the table to look after your interests. I know there are people besides me that are looking out for your interests.”

Now we are ready to begin.

DAMMING AND CHANNELIZATION of the Missouri has turned the lower river into an 800-mile gutter flush, with such drastic changes to water speed, depth, and temperature that, for fish like the pallid sturgeon, biologists don’t even know precisely why they’re dying, much less how to save them. Research, then, is central to the task of recovering them.

But in an age where science itself has become political, baseline facts are difficult to establish. So MRRIC brought on an independent science advisory panel, a group of non-stakeholder PhDs hired to basically fact check the Army Corps’ science. Over the years, as participants have become more comfortable with them and with each other, the panel’s science has become accepted by ideologically distant stakeholders. The advisory panel is ready to summarize its most recent report at the meeting. Although MRRIC meetings address a broad spectrum of river restoration topics, much of the wrangling lately has centered on IRCs, or “interception-rearing complexes,” a river dike technique used by the Army Corps to help baby pallid sturgeons survive. Tom Horgan of navigation, is the first to speak.

“Despite my enormous respect and admiration for you, I found this review to be incredibly disappointing. I think the report contains a lot of false statements, inaccurate observations and conclusions, and failed to address several of the impacts of IRCs that have significant potential to negatively impact navigation. Because of their concerns, Missouri River navigation stakeholders have recommended more comprehensive detailed modeling be undertaken to measure the impacts of the IRCs on safety.”

This peeves Bill Beacom, who was a river pilot himself for 44 years. “I would venture to say that not one person that Mr. Horgan has talked to has ever read a book on hydrology, has ever studied the Missouri River. And so …”

Horgan scoffs, and Paul De Morgan has to jump in. “Bill, Bill, that may be true, that may be not, but I don’t think you should be projecting your perspective on whether or not somebody’s read. Maybe talk to Tom offline about that, thanks.”

De Morgan has a pacifying face and voice, looking as much meditator as mediator. His job is not to push policy but merely to keep MRRIC civil, eliding topics, settling disputes, smoothing wrinkles as they arise. Part of that job is finding a common language for everyone present. “The adaptive management approach has not often, if ever, been done, at this level, this size, and this scope,” he says in an interview later. “You’ve got 29 stakeholders representing 16 interests, 29 tribes, eight states, you’ve got two primary and 13 other federal agencies, and they all have different interests and they all have different mandates.”

On the river there are several different languages spoken, which often inhabit distant corners of the English language. The vernacular of a Nebraska soybean farmer is so unlike that of a USGS hydrologist or a government bureaucrat that it’s difficult to talk about the weather, much less the restoration of a river. But it’s doable, Beacom tells me later.

The endangered pallid sturgeon is one of three federally listed species at the heart of an Army Corps effort to restore the Missouri River. Photo by Rob Holm / USFWS.

“Human beings are human beings no matter what they’re involved in. Long-term exposures will either make really strong enemies or really strong friends. A lot of us have been together for a long time.” A decade of sitting in huis-clos conference halls with one another has forced a common bond among ideological enemies, if not a common policy.

DURING THE LUNCH BREAK on the first day, the tribal members meet separately in a side room to address tribal concerns. Robb Turner, a member of the independent science advisory panel (ISAP) with a bluff-to-bluff mustache, has a special request for the nine tribes present. He wants to hire a new member to the ISAP to be an expert in tribal interests. That person should be a PhD as well as an expert in spiritual matters, someone “who can bridge that gap between the Indigenous knowledge and the Western science or the Western anthropology.” He’s here to ask for recommendations.

There’s a silence. Kip Spotted Eagle, the son of well-known environmental and Indigenous rights activist Faith Spotted Eagle and the representative of the Yankton Sioux, responds at last. “There’s men that dedicate their whole life to being able to work with the spirits. Then to ask them to dedicate the other part to a PhD, they’re not congruent. Even if that person exists, I don’t know if the tribe will let them, because they have things to do otherwise.” The pool of natives with PhDs, he adds, is small, and the requirement is a bit classist.

Reno Red Cloud of the Oglala Sioux, speaks next. “A lot of times I’ve brought cultural and historic issues up [to MRRIC]. And it’s not like it really wanted to be heard. How are you going to bring up your cultural issues when you want scientific answers? There’s going to be a conflict.”

“There’s a bridge between the Western world and the sacred that, somehow, we need to build,” Turner says. “That’s proving to be a big challenge.”

Bob Walters of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe raises his card.

“That river has always been sacred to us. Water is sacred, water is life. But it does seem like I’ve sat up here for years, and I hear the same thing over and over and over and over and over. Every meeting! What’s in it that’s going to help the tribes? When that black snake breaks underneath that river and that oil comes down into our water, how are we going to be protected? I know this doesn’t even pertain to MRRIC. But do we pertain to MRRIC? Come on, we’re the ones who live on the river. That river is ours.”

Turner interjects: “Bob ...”

“The 1868 treaty says that river belongs to the Indian people.”

“Bob ...”

The pitch of Walters’ speech, as well as the tension in the room, is rising.

“I’m honored to sit on here on behalf of my tribe, but I’m here to protect our people. I understand the Endangered Species Act. But again, what about endangered Indigenous people? What about our river?”

Historically, there’s been a tension between the tribes and MRRIC’s mission. To its credit, the Army Corps has worked to bring Native voices to the table. But at its core, MRRIC is a science-based initiative, and cultural priorities, like the sacred burial site of ancestors, has nothing to do with science. If the proper river levels for piping plover eggs expose a burial site, whose interests will dominate? The tribes know whose. It gives the entire charade a bit of a colonial feel.

The history around the river’s channelization doesn’t help either. In engineering the modern Missouri River, the Army Corps drowned 356,000 acres of the best land on Dakota reservations, in one instance letting two tribes find out about the imminent inundation of their towns from the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. Walters’ Cheyenne River Sioux was one of the tribes flooded out.

“We’re trying to figure out how we can help MRRIC writ large understand your perspective and the navigators’ perspective and everybody else’s perspective around the table,” Turner says to Walters.

Walters suggests adding 29 tribal representatives to the ISAP, since there are 29 tribes in the MRRIC charter. Finally, Mary Roth, a representative from the Army Corps, has heard enough. She announces there will be one tribal representative, telling them they can have that or nothing at all. Cards go up all around the room.

Alan Kelley of the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska speaks. “The (dams and channelization structures) culturally destroyed the river,” he says slowly. “This is what we’ve got left. It would be good to get that one representative. That’s a start. We’re lucky we’re even here to be able to try to make a difference.”

Lunch has been over for 15 minutes. In the main convention room, the larger meeting has started up again without the tribes.

LIKE ANY PROTRACTED LEGAL debate, many points of contention in MRRIC have a tendency to whittle themselves into pedantry. In MRRIC this is called “wordsmithing,” and many hours are devoted to it. Anyone can object to the specific wording of a recommendation before it gets approved, and the text is debated until everyone present likes it. Out of 44 potential recommendations, numbers 1, 2, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 32, 33, 41, and 44 have been flagged by members for wordsmithing.

Of particular contention is number 12, a recommendation Tom Horgan of the navigation group has been trying to ram through all weekend, initially blocked by a single thumbs-down from Bill Beacom. Regarding the construction of IRCs, it essentially advocates establishing yet another level of peer review of the Army Corps’ science. Beacom takes issue with the wording, or the essence, of the recommendation; it’s unclear which.

Dr. David Galat, a momentary ally of Horgan’s, who is always for more science, acknowledges the nature of MRRIC as a sluggish chain of analyses, responses, analyses of responses, critiques, analyses of critiques — all processes that can be used not only to improve restoration plans but also to delay them.

Photo by USFWS.
The least tern nests, which nests on the banks of the Missouri, has experienced habitat loss due to development along the river. Photo by USFWS.

Although no one wants to disturb the tape that holds MRRIC together, it’s clear that Horgan’s appeal for more scientific review is a thinly veiled attempt to stall construction of IRCs. His sublimely political approach answers a question I had from the start: Why do people like Horgan and industrial farmers like Leo Ettleman, who oppose river restoration, attend MRRIC, a committee designed to restore the river? For the same reason that the tribes attend: It’s easier to fight from within than from without. MRRIC is a convenient political tool to grind river politics to a halt. It was literally designed for obstruction purposes by the state of Missouri, which demanded it operate on unanimous consent when it was created.

For an hour, committee members debate the grammar and syntax of recommendation 12, a suggestion meant to prevent change on the river. The recommendation, which has been rewritten over the weekend, is pruned and tweaked until it’s gone from establishing a new scientific review to asking the Army Corps to keep MRRIC “informed of future consultations” with science groups, a weakened version that might be interpreted as a slight win for the fish. Finally, recreation rep Larry Shepherd, overwhelmed by bureaucratic nuance, raises his card.

“This reminds me of some exercise where you let everyone in the classroom draw a part of an animal, and then you assemble them all, and it looks like part cockroach, bull, and turnip. I think we’ve lost our way on this … I think no one’s against it because I’m not sure what ‘it’ is anymore.”

OUTSIDE THE GIANT HORSESHOE table, high-level representatives from the Army Corps observe. Brigadier General Helmlinger delivers an address of support for MRRIC. John Remus, chief of the Missouri River Basin Management Division, is present all weekend. Corps members occasionally participate in discussions, but they make no policy recommendations. They’re here to learn. It’s easy to forget, in the stakeholder melee, that they’re the ones who run the river. I use the word “recommendations” in relation to MRRIC because that’s all they are: recommendations. In the end, the Army Corps can take whatever comes from MRRIC and throw it in the garbage.

That would not be good politics for the Army Corps, whose mandate is to please as many people along the river as possible. Beyond that, the world’s most powerful engineering organization has just one agenda on the Missouri: avoiding legal jeopardy.

In the past century, the Army Corps hasn’t been known for ecological nuance. It has been known for dams, on just about every dammable river in the nation, including the Missouri. In recent decades, as the environmental bill for those dams has come due, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and environmental groups have sued them. Many of these suits use the Endangered Species Act, hinging on the demonstrable impact of the dams and channelization structures on protected species. In response, the Army Corps finally took on restoration as a serious function. Which is when, in a pendular swing, anti-environmental interests started suing. In 2018, Big Ag won a class-action suit against the Army Corps for undertaking river restoration projects on the Missouri, claiming their work was flooding farmers’ lands.

The Army Corps latest plan — a Record of Decision signed in 2018 — seeks a middle ground free of lawsuits. The document lays out the Corps’ management plan to comply with the Endangered Species Act on the Missouri — i.e., to avoid a jeopardy finding for the three federally listed species that depend on the river. It’s not a plan for river restoration, exactly, rather a life support plan narrowly tailored to the three animals. In the not-too-distant past, the Corps acquired 66,713 acres of riverfront land for ecological projects and dug 1,697 dike notches, 39 side-channel chutes, 20 revetment chutes, 14 backwaters and three channel-widenings, all in the name of restoration. But that’s all but dried up; the new Record of Decision specifically deprioritizes habitat restoration and land acquisition, admitting that ecological improvements under the new plan “are not considered significant.” It’s designed to do the bare minimum, or, in other words, to avoid liability.

In the end, the Army Corps can take whatever comes from MRRIC and throw it in the garbage.

One might surmise, then, that the Army Corps would serve to gain from a unified group of stakeholders. Combing the 48 recommendations to the Corps that were passed in the Sioux Falls plenary, you might find small but notable requests urging the Corps to investigate habitat impacts from recent flooding, or outlining possible funding priorities. But mostly, you’d find phrases no more radical than “MRRIC supports USACE continuing to work closely with relevant stakeholders.”

In the end, MRRIC, expensive as it is, effectively neutralizes a collective of opposed interests by grinding them all against one another to the point of organized gridlock, sometimes intentionally. “Whether it works or not depends on who’s on the committee and whether they are really trying to make it work,” says Caroline Pufalt, a Sierra Club volunteer who represents fish and wildlife on MRRIC. “Frankly, I’m not sure everyone is.”

Several MRRIC stakeholders I spoke to called for loosening the consensus mandate. Others argued that, by running recommendations through the gauntlet of thumbs, the final product is of the highest quality possible. Whatever digests through MRRIC, be it with teeth or without, has been cosigned by every river faction imaginable, and therefore, in theory at least, can’t be complained about, or sued over, by anyone. So it may not be the river, or the fish, or the diverse stakeholders who benefit most from this cumbersome management model. Rather, it may be those watching from outside the horseshoe table, running the show.

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