Managing the Missouri River involves few easy choices. We get that.
But the river managers — the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — also must understand the choices it makes cannot be considered in isolation. We're not sure the corps gets that.
The crisis at hand starts with the prolonged Midwest drought and soon will be amplified by a corps decision to dramatically reduce water flows from an upper Missouri River reservoir. Around Thanksgiving the corps plans to begin a two-thirds reduction in water released at Gavins Point Dam in South Dakota.
We'll see the impact in the Missouri. The Kansas City Water Services Department already has been advised it should prepare for costly auxiliary pumping to keep water flowing in the metropolitan area.
The bigger impact, however, is feared along the Mississippi River, where water from the Missouri is a vital sustainer of barge traffic. Cutting the river flow could cause real harm to shippers who move 60 percent of the nation's grain exports, 20 percent of its coal and substantial quantities of fertilizer, lumber and other products. Consumers will feel this, too.
The corps defends its plans as consistent with the Master Manual, its guide for acting in the best interest of the Missouri River basin. It says recreation areas north of Gavins Point already have been affected by lower water levels. Hydropower operations could be affected next year.
"We do not believe we have the authority to operate solely for the Mississippi River basin," said spokeswoman Monique Farmer. "The manual is for benefit of the Missouri River."
Downstream interests have heard this "by the book" explanation before. The flooding of 2011 will be long remembered in this region as a manmade occurrence that ranked our interests as secondary to those upstream.
We don't doubt the corps is concerned about whether the drought still will be with us next year. We recognize planning for worst-case scenarios is part of the job.
But, repeatedly, we see evidence the corps needs to take a long look at practices that attempt to segment an interconnected river system that exists for the benefit of a large region. When choosing winners and losers, we strongly advise the corps to give priority to those communities and areas already caught up in a real crisis.
Copyright St. Joseph News-Press. Distributed by The Associated Press.