Efforts by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to improve the Upper Mississippi River for commercial navigation date back to the early 1830s. The initial efforts involved the removal of the numerous snags that filled the river at the time. Other nineteenth-century navigation improvement programs included dredging of navigation channels, blasting of rapids, construction of dikes, jetties, and wing dams, and initiation of a 4½-foot channel project in 1878. Even during this era, some observers sensed the enormity of the task that the Corps had embarked upon; the Corps’ efforts led Mark Twain to quip that “the military engineers of the [Mississippi River] Commission have taken upon their shoulders the job of making the Mississippi over again—a job transcended in size by only the original job of creating it” (Twain, 1883, pp. 301-302).
But the Corps’ efforts to improve commercial navigability continued: In 1907 Congress authorized a 6-foot channel project, and in 1930 a 9-foot channel was authorized for the Upper Mississippi River. The 9-foot channel project, constructed largely during the 1930s, created a series of low-head dams, locks, and navigation pools on the Upper Mississippi. On the Illinois Waterway, construction began earlier, with the first lock and dam completed in 1871 (by the State of Illinois). The 9-foot channel project initiated several lasting, large-scale ecological changes to the system that continue to affect the river ecosystem and its users today. In addition to the navigation project, several other anthropogenic changes have affected river ecology and water quality, including levee construction, construction of hydropower dams, floodplain and watershed agricultural practices, pollution loads, deforestation, and population and urbanization trends.
A key lesson from the past 175 years of managing the Upper Mississippi and its resources is that it has never been possible, in Twain's words, to “fetter and handcuff that river and boss him” (Twain, 1883, p. 302). Over that period an implicit goal of Corps river management policy and practices has been to manage the river in a way
that maximized overall benefits to society. As part of the 1936 Flood Control Act, the Corps was mandated to ensure that benefits from proposed flood control projects exceeded the costs; this criterion was extended to all water resources projects by 1950. But as Congress, the administration, and the Corps have learned, the notion of optimal river management is viewed differently by different groups, and thus not easy to realize to the satisfaction of all. Attempts to tame the river for the benefit of one class of user have usually changed the river in ways that have negative consequences for other users. With changes in economies, affluence, and social preferences over time, the public has sought a changing mix in services, resulting in changing priorities for managing the river. The need to address shifting social and economic preferences, while also servicing traditional users, has posed great challenges to the Corps during this 175-year period and will continue to do so in the future.
The Corps’ Restructured UMR-IWW Feasibility Study represents the most recent rendition of these efforts to manage UMR-IWW resources. The Corps encountered several analytical challenges in the course of a study process that took more than 15 years. Despite these problems and a number of serious criticisms—including some from this committee—the Corps took a major step forward by considering ecological restoration and commercial navigation in the same study. Nevertheless, as pointed out in this committee’s second report, the ecosystem restoration plan’s objectives are limited, stopping far short of correcting cumulative ecological changes that have resulted from construction and operation of the UMR-IWW navigation project. In its first two reports this committee noted the complexities of integrated river management and the challenges of encompassing all relevant water-related sectors within a single unifying framework. A lesson for future planning studies is that it is not sufficient to simply accumulate more information and consider additional water-related sectors in the analysis; improved planning will require careful understanding of the opportunities for trade-offs among major classes of river users and values.
The Corps’ feasibility study had to address high levels of uncertainty in many of its subject areas, including waterway traffic forecasts, river responses to operational changes, and future navigation and shipping technologies and practices. These uncertainties are characteristic of all studies of this kind and were particularly prominent in the UMR-IWW Feasibility Study. The existence and nature of trade-offs among river management purposes and goals are similarly uncertain. In the interest of reducing uncertainties the committee has stressed the need for the best professional planning and analysis. But improved planning and analysis can only reduce uncertainties, not eliminate them. The possibility of making costly, inappropriate decisions based on uncertain data still exists. In a project and system like the UMR-IWW that must be operated over a long period of time, however, learning from experience—that is, applying adaptive management principles—can lead to better choices over the life of the project. To its credit the Corps has proposed a comprehensive application of
adaptive management in the implementation phase, and has structured and scheduled its project proposals in a way that facilitates adaptive management. As the Corps proceeds with future UMR-IWW management decisions, an adaptive approach in which engineers, natural and social scientists, and other professionals collaborate closely with the Corps, in a two-way exchange of information and knowledge, should prove useful in improving overall knowledge of the system and in ensuring better operational decisions.
Despite the positive prospects of adaptive management for future UMR-IWW management, after some five years of interaction between the Corps and two different NRC committees, notable deficiencies within the planning study identified by these committees were never fully resolved. Both Phase I and Phase II committees concluded that the benefits of lock extensions could not be adequately evaluated without first applying nonstructural strategies for managing waterway congestion. These committees also found that the economic models used in the feasibility study to estimate the benefits of navigation improvements did not produce credible results. It would have been preferable for both of these key analytic issues to have been resolved earlier in the planning process. A firm commitment to adaptive management on the UMR-IWW leaves open the possibility that deficiencies in the planning study can be corrected prior to major investment. But adaptive management cannot be relied on to fully compensate for fundamental weaknesses in project plans. Adaptation works best when it is used to make incremental improvements in conceptually sound plans.
The UMR-IWW Feasibility Study is not the first time that the Corps has grappled with the complexity of large, multiple purpose projects affecting large populations and major ecosystems. The South Florida Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, for example, is a similar situation in some respects. The process of revising the Corps’ Master Manual for the Missouri River Dam and Reservoir System also bears similarities to the UMR-IWW management process. The UMR-IWW study, however, occupies a unique place in the history of such planning efforts, in that it both predates and postdates the movement of the Corps into projects with both National Economic Development and National Ecosystem Restoration purposes. The consequence of this paradigm shift was its major restructuring in 2001-2002, during which the study broadened from a conventional, single-purpose navigation improvement study to include an ecosystem restoration component. The resulting study incorporated some cutting-edge features (e.g., provisions for adaptive management, effective use of expert review, substantial stakeholder involvement) but also inherited certain outmoded or discredited elements from past planning practices (e.g., navigation benefit models, inadequate attention to nonstructural alternatives). The Corps’ UMR-IWW feasibility study represents a major milestone in a long process of trying to enhance the economy of the Upper Mississippi River region, in the broad sense of conserving and rehabilitating its environmental and social features along with
its engineered structures. The Corps has taken impressive strides in crossing this milestone, but as the Corps moves forward with UMR-IWW system management, a key challenge will be to retain the better features of the present plan, while correcting and strengthening its weaker elements within the context of the proposed implementation schedule.