Second of two articles

Native prairie grass grows wild here at Hamburg Bend, one of the few off-channel chutes left on the channelized Missouri River. The unprotected banks erode fast, dropping nutrient-rich soil and cottonwoods into the water. Snags and sandbars form and shift. Ducks and geese fly in to forage. Catfish feed, spawn and loaf in the lazy current.

The three-mile chute at Hamburg Bend, in other words, looks the way much of the 2,500-mile Missouri River used to look, back when it was truly the Big Muddy, back when it was braided and erratic and roamed across the plains, back before the Army Corps of Engineers imprisoned it in a slim navigation channel to attract barges that never really came. This is just the kind of natural sidechannel that entranced Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their historic journey west.

In fact, though, the Hamburg chute is not as "natural" as it seems. The Corps has spent $4.5 million unplugging it, reengineering it and shielding it with stone jetties, one of the first efforts to undo some of the vast environmental damage the agency has inflicted by manhandling America's longest and widest-ranging river into a narrow barge canal.

It was, to be sure, a modest effort, restoring only 1,630 of this valley's half-million acres of lost wetlands. But the Corps is trying to reinvent itself as an ecofriendly agency; after years of building projects that controlled nature, it now senses a demand for huge projects that restore nature. So this sliver of "natural" habitat could foreshadow a new era for the Missouri, where a high-stakes battle has been raging over the river's economic and ecological future.

The melee over the Missouri, in turn, may be an early skirmish in an even larger war over the future of America's perennially underachieving river transportation system. The Corps has domesticated 11,000 miles of the nation's most beloved rivers for navigation, taming their natural ebbs and flows in favor of deep, uniform, reliable channels. But while these multibillion-dollar projects created a few truly important rivers of commerce, barge traffic on most of the system's waterways has ranged between disappointing and nonexistent.

For example, in the 1930s the Corps justified its efforts to carve the "Mighty Mo" into a meek stream by predicting 12 million tons of annual commodity movements; today, the Missouri floats just 1.8 million tons, down from a record haul of 3.3 million in 1977.

The pressing question on the Missouri--and on much of the heavily subsidized, ecologically ravaged system--is: Now what?

This year, the Corps will spend nearly half the $700 million budget on waterways that carry one-thirtieth of the system's traffic. Some critics want Congress to cut the budget. Others want more resources shifted to the four waterways that float more than 90 percent of the system's barges--the Mississippi, the Ohio, the Illinois and the Gulf Intracoastal. Others want the Corps to devote more time and money to ecoprojects like the Hamburg chute. There is a growing sense, too, that Congress and the Corps should rethink the system's overriding focus on navigation, to do less for barges along rivers that rarely see any, and do more to promote more productive uses of rivers.

Even the head of the Corps, a civilian-dominated public works agency tucked in the Army's bureaucracy, admits his agency needs to reevaluate the way it runs its waterways.

"We haven't really made any tough choices yet; right now, I think it's status quo all the way," says Joseph Westphal, a former water issues adviser at the Environmental Protection Agency who is now the assistant Army secretary in charge of civil works. "But we're working towards it. Some people might say we're crawling towards it."

It is hard to overstate the Missouri's overall significance to this part of the country, as a vital source of hydropower and drinking water, a recreational getaway for 4 million visitors annually, and a treasured cultural and historical gem. But it is also hard to deny the failure of navigation on the Missouri's 736-mile barge channel, flowing through corn and soybean country from St. Louis to Kansas City to Omaha and up to Sioux City. A Corps booklet chronicling "100 Years of the Missouri River Navigation Project" candidly notes that the river's commercial tonnage hasn't even matched the amount of rock used to armor its channel.

The story is simple and familiar: Riverborne commerce flourished here in Mark Twain's day, but railroads killed steamboats and now they outcompete barges as well--partly because river transport is slow and inefficient in general, partly because the Missouri's rapid currents make upstream travel even tougher. As the Corps booklet puts it, "Twain would be most perplexed by today's absence of traffic on the sinuous waterway . . . from a point of view of commercial traffic, the engineering accomplishment has been wasted effort."

Here is the Corps paradox of the Missouri: The self-styled "greener" agency now concedes that navigation produces only $7 million of the river's $1.8 billion in economic benefits. But it still manages the river primarily for navigation.

It does so even though the status quo has erased nine-tenths of the Missouri's sandbars and islands, four-fifths of its aquatic food and two-thirds of its famous catfish. It does so even though the status quo makes the river much less accessible for fishing, hunting, swimming, canoeing and other recreation, which nonetheless produces 16 times the economic benefits of navigation. It does so even though the status quo may drain water away from the Mississippi, where barges provide more than 250 times the economic benefits of the Missouri's. And it does so even though the Clinton administration has ruled that the status quo jeopardizes three endangered species--the least tern, the piping plover and the Jurassic-era pallid sturgeon, which had managed just fine for the previous 150 million years--and environmentalists plan to sue.

A host of critics believe that the Missouri's real potential--as a recreation paradise, a historic site, a wildlife habitat, even an economic engine--has been bottled up as tightly as the river itself. Someday, their dream goes, the Missouri can be the Rocky Mountains of the Plains, binding the region together--if only it weren't managed for a few daily barges.

"The Missouri is an extraordinary public resource that's being controlled by a few private interests," says Chad Smith, the Missouri River coordinator for the nonprofit group American Rivers. "We've got to have a balance."

The Corps will never return the Missouri to the free-flowing days of Lewis and Clark; that could drown countless acres of cropland, not to mention the cities that have sprouted along the river. But if there were ever an opportunity for a new approach, this is it: The Corps is rewriting its Missouri management plan for the first time since 1962, and the river is now the most politicized battleground in the war for the agency's soul.

Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) and other Democrats from Montana and the Dakotas are pushing the Corps to divert less water from their reservoirs during the summer recreation season, a move that would suspend navigation during those months for the first time since the Depression. Six Iowa conservation groups, mindful of the upcoming presidential caucuses as well as the damage the status quo has done to birds, fish and trees, have asked Vice President Gore to weigh in on behalf of a "split season" as well. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.) like the status quo.

Politics has always ruled the inland waterways; most were built to accommodate congressmen eager to bring home public works, and Corps officials gripe that they still can't adjust lawn-mowing schedules without hearing from angry lawmakers. But with the rise of environmentalism and the recognition of the economic perks of healthy rivers, the new politics of waterways are much more contentious; on the Missouri, the running joke is that the only two unacceptable decisions for the Corps would be the status quo or any change.

Soon, though, Westphal will have to make some of those hard choices he admits the Corps has ducked for years--and the barge-friendly option may no longer be the automatic choice.

"It just gets old after a while," complains Gerald Mestl, the Missouri River manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, and a key player in the creation of the Hamburg chute. "The river's been managed for navigation for decades, and they've got nothing to show for it--except a messed-up river. Come on! It's time to try something new!"

Taming the 'Big Muddy'

The "Big Muddy" used to inspire some of America's most overwrought nature writing.

"A tawny, restless, brawling flood," scribbled one observer. "It makes farming as fascinating as gambling; you never know whether you are going to harvest corn or catfish." William Clark, braving the wilderness without a spellchecker, admired the lush swaths of oak, ash and cottonwood on the Missouri's floodplain, "one of the most butifill Plains I ever Saw, open & butifully diversified." The river itself was a constant adventure, meandering through forests, mutinying its banks, spreading six miles wide, never standing still. "No other river was ever so dead-set against being navigated," another Missouri-watcher wrote.

Dead-set or not, the Missouri was navigated during the steamboat era, and for a while it reigned as the main link to the nation's interior. But once the railroad era began in the mid-19th century, shippers no longer needed to risk the river's hazardous currents.

Congress and the Corps nonetheless began channelizing the lower Missouri in 1882, and they continued in fits and starts for a century, building more than 7,500 wood and rock wingdikes to funnel river water to the center of the channel. In 1915, the Corps engineer in Kansas City realized the project was hemorrhaging $1.1 million a year to save shippers $10,000 a year, and proposed abandoning it. But he was promptly denounced by local boosters and influential congressmen--House Speaker James "Champ" Clark of Missouri testified that the Corps had "no business" making economic analyses, or at least negative ones"--and the work continued.

The final push began in 1943, when a Corps official, Lewis Pick, (who reportedly cried, "I want control of the Missouri River!") and a Bureau of Reclamation engineer, Glenn Sloan, cut a celebrated deal to build a series of dams in Montana and the Dakotas. The dams were not designed merely for navigation--they were also supposed to impound water for irrigation and flood control--but they solidified the Missouri's uneasy status as a navigable river.

Ultimately, the project rendered the lower Missouri almost unrecognizable.

The water that had drifted across the valley was squeezed into a deeper channel, reducing the river's width by two-thirds. Hairpin turns that had confounded steamboats were sliced off to ease barge travel, reducing the river's length by 127 miles. Soft erosive banks that had disintegrated daily were reinforced with unyielding rock revetments. Shallow backwaters and chutes that had teemed with 300 species of wildlife were silted in solid. The natural ebbs and flows that had built sandbars for nesting shorebirds and triggered mysterious reproductive impulses in spawning fish were eliminated to maintain steady water levels for barges. The floodplain that had been forestland is now almost all cropland.

Today, dozens of the homogenized river's species are in serious decline. Two tiny chubs may join the endangered species list. Bald eagles are dwindling. Commercial fishing is at an all-time low. American Rivers rates the Missouri the nation's second-most endangered river behind the Snake River.

"Obviously, there's been tremendous damage in the past," acknowledges Rosemary Hargrave, the Corps's project manager for the Missouri. "Unfortunately, when this system was built, the environmental ethic just wasn't what it is today. The question is, what can we do now?"

The latest battle over the Missouri has been brewing since the droughts of the 1980s, when the Corps dutifully released water downstream to salvage the barge channel. That helped the few barges hauling grain and fertilizer on the lower Missouri. But it devastated the vibrant recreation industry that had developed around the scenic reservoirs behind the upper-basin dams; Lake Oahe ran so dry it left North Dakota. Lawsuits followed, and the Corps agreed to review its Missouri "master manual." The review became even more urgent when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service deemed the status quo unacceptable for endangered species.

In 1994, the Corps made a bold proposal: It would time its dam releases to mimic the old natural river. A "spring rise" would give fish their weird spawning cues, and form underwater sandbars. A low summer flow would keep the upper-basin reservoirs full for boating and sport fishing, expose the sandbars for shorebirds, and slow down lower-basin currents enough to allow canoeing and swimming downstream. But that meant suspending navigation in the summer--the first time the Corps had ever proposed interrupting navigation on a major waterway--and flooding more river's-edge farmers in the spring. And that meant a fight.

"We got the snot kicked out of us," recalls Corps spokesman Paul Johnston.

The barge industry, after all, can be as potent as an untrammeled river. Its leaders are well-wired conglomerates such as CSX, Archer Daniels Midland, ConAgra and Cargill, firms that flooded federal campaigns with more than $10 million from 1991 to 1998. The farm lobby is also a force, and while the Missouri floats less than 2 percent of its host states' grain, farmers believe--despite many academic studies to the contrary--that the mere existence of a barge channel holds down their rail rates.

"We're all sick of this Mother Nature cultism," says Ron Blakely, who farms 1,200 acres in the floodplain near St. Joseph, Mo., and is leading an effort to build a new port there. "Yeah, I'd like to save the fish. But . . . who's going to save me?"

Corps officials have spent five years back at the drawing board, and while they love to talk about "consensus," this debate is almost certain to end up in court.

Environmentalists have proposed a less drastic spring rise, combined with a reduced summer flow, to replicate nature. Daschle and recreation interests in the upper reaches also insist on withholding water from barges during the summer to keep the reservoirs full. The Missouri River Valley Association, with representatives from all eight river states, proposed an even milder tweak maintaining navigation except in severe droughts, infuriating the green groups. Then the state of Missouri--host to two-thirds of the river's barges--refused to endorse even those modest changes, after the Midwest barge-industry group MARC 2000 declared that any interruption of the channel would destroy what little barging there is on the Missouri.

"Everybody wants to make navigation the loser in all this," complains MARC 2000 Director Christopher Brescia. "Look, if you think these [barge traffic] numbers are low, well, they're not going to grow without water."

Navigation is under fire on other Corps waterways as well. On the Snake River, the Corps is studying a controversial proposal to breach four massive dams that smooth the way for barges but decimate salmon runs. On the Apalachicola River, environmentalists have urged the Corps to stop dredging its little-used barge channel to protect riverbottom oyster beds. Corps officials also say they will scale back operations on their worst-performing rivers, and even hope to abandon a few dust-gathering locks and dams.

But even the strongest backers of the inland waterway system warn that its policy decisions are never made in a political vacuum. In fact, on the Missouri last month, the Corps was ready to endorse the near-status-quo plan offered by the Missouri River association; navigation was primed to continue its quiet reign as the Corps' core Missouri mission. But Westphal delayed the final decision after meeting with upper-basin Democrats in Sen. Daschle's office, explaining that he needed to study the issue more carefully. He also mentioned to associates that he did not want to blindside Gore, who would love to avoid taking a position on this messy conflict before this month's Iowa caucuses.

"These waterway decisions are always driven by politics, and anyone who denies that isn't being honest with themselves," says Tom Alegretti, president of American Waterways Operators.

Seeking a 'New Balance'

The hot buzzword along the Missouri these days is "balance."

The common rap goes like this: The river does not belong to barges. Or to the pallid sturgeon. It does not belong to boaters. Or to farmers. There has to be a balance.

Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), the most prominent "balance" advocate, is pushing a bill that would officially establish "fish and wildlife" as a Corps priority on par with "navigation."

"Today, we have different ideas about what's an important use of the river," Kerrey says. "Obviously, it's not just barges anymore. We need to strike a new balance."

Usually, though, when Corps officials talk about "balance," they're thinking of new priorities in addition to barges, not instead of barges. They say their choices are not either-or; they can continue to support navigation full throttle, while helping to restore wetlands their agency has destroyed, and promoting recreation to boot. "We really think we can do it all," says Johnston, the Corps spokesman in Omaha.

On the Missouri, that means unplugging sidechannels like the Hamburg chute, widening some river bends, lowering and notching dikes, perhaps even removing a few--while maintaining nine uniform feet of water in the barge channel. But that will require money; the Corps spends only $8 million a year on mitigation for the Missouri, half what it spends shoring up the barge channel. Meanwhile, Corps officials say their waterways need billions of dollars for renovations; half their locks and dams have reached the end of their 50-year design lives.

"This green infusion for the Corps, it's going to take another infusion of green, if you know what I mean," says Corps operations chief Charles Hess. "Nothing comes for free."

Congress has already authorized five major mitigation projects on Corps-constructed waterways--the Missouri, the Upper Mississippi, the Tennessee-Tombigbee, the Snake and the Columbia--as well as dozens of smaller restoration projects. Kerrey's bill would pump another $320 million into the Missouri basin, funding nature-building efforts like the Hamburg chute, riverfront revitalization initiatives in communities such as Omaha and Kansas City, and new Lewis and Clark interpretive centers in towns like St. Charles, Mo. And last year, Congress tripled the acreage authorized for wildlife refuges along the Missouri.

But to critics of the Corps' traditional build-anything approach, this new desire to float barges and restore rivers at the same time smacks of the hard-choice avoidance that Westphal says is ancient history. If these barge channels are so important, they say, then the barge industry should pay more than one-eighth of the costs of maintaining and renovating them.

"On most of these rivers, the economics of navigation makes no sense whatsoever," says C. Philip Baumel, an Iowa State University economics professor. "Of course, the politics are a completely different question."

It certainly is. Today, the main reform plan circulating in Congress would not shift the costs of the underachieving system to its industrial users. Nor would it accept reformers' proposals to privatize the system's waterways--the nation's most subsidized transportation network--or shift the system's resources toward high-volume rivers.

It would double the system's construction budget.

CAPTION: CHANNELING (This graphic was not available)

CAPTION: Gerald Mestl, the Missouri River manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, says it's "been managed for navigation for decades. . . . It's time to try something new!"