WASHINGTON -- The Missouri River should meander freely along some stretches, returning to the conditions that existed before dams and channels created barge traffic routes, the National Research Council said Wednesday.
A more natural flow might entail an end to navigation along portions that are open to towboat traffic, but entire species of birds and fish may disappear without it, the council said.
Dams and channels have straightened the river's loops and meanders over the years, providing flood control and allowing navigation but stopping nearly all of the sediment flow responsible for the nickname "Big Muddy." The Missouri flows 2,341 miles through one-sixth of the country, from Three Forks, Mont., to St. Louis.
Not only did the council's findings hearten environmentalists seeking the changes, they satisfied a recreation and tourism industry that earns tens of millions of dollars from boating and fishing on upriver lakes that would keep more of the river's water in the busy summer season.
Besides benefits to ecology, the economic benefits alone "could justify reforming dam operations to create a spring rise and low summer flows," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, a Democrat from South Dakota.
The issue is the subject of bitter dispute between upriver and downriver communities and divides otherwise like-minded lawmakers, such as Daschle and House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri.
The recreation industry insists it contributes millions of dollars more to the economy than does navigation, estimated at $87 million versus $7 million. The council agreed.