Roger Blaske's great-grandfather worked the Missouri River. So did his grandfather, as well as his dad. But last year, Blaske sold the family barges. The river was just too low.
A severe drought, now in its seventh year, is wreaking havoc up and down the Missouri, from the river's headwaters at Three Forks, Mont., to its confluence with the Mississippi River near St. Louis. One big casualty: a commercial shipping tradition that dates to Lewis and Clark.
"We've all seen droughts before -- but this one, it's serious," Blaske, 62 and retired, said while sitting on a park bench recently at a visitor center near the confluence.
What the Missouri needs most is a deluge of melted snow and rain, but Mother Nature is not cooperating. Absent that, the Senate Appropriations Committee is trying to alleviate the problem -- but members are badly split over what to do.
Nearly a third of the 28 committee members represent states that border the Missouri or have an economic stake in it, and they fall into two camps with very different interests: upstream and downstream.
"It's almost become a Hatfield-McCoy kind of fight, unfortunately," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.).
Dorgan and two fellow upstreamers, Sens. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), want to retain more water in the upper Midwest reservoirs that were built after the Depression to control flooding and improve navigation. Over the decades, the six reservoirs, in the Dakotas, Montana and Nebraska, have become a vital regional resource, providing drinking water to many communities and spawning a lucrative fishing and boating industry.
Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.) leads a downstream faction that also includes Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). They argue that holding more water in the reservoirs would end commercial navigation on the Missouri, jeopardize operations at 18 power plants and hinder shipping on the Mississippi -- one of the country's most important transportation corridors.
The Mississippi angle broadens the downstream coalition to include Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.); Mitch McConnell (Ky.), the No. 2 Republican in the Senate; and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.).
The two sides are using hearings and legislation to duke it out. As the drought worsens, the remedies are getting more creative. Dorgan's latest idea: a federal buyout of the barge industry, which he says is worth about $8 million a year -- about a tenth of the revenue that Dorgan says the tourism industry generates on Lake Sakakawea, the Missouri River reservoir in the middle of his state.
Last year, Dorgan and Burns tried to hold back more reservoir water by adding a provision to the spending bill produced by the interior subcommittee, which the two senators control. The full committee passed the legislation, infuriating Bond. The former Missouri governor inserted language to block the provision in the veterans affairs and housing spending bill produced by the panel that he chairs. Both bills wound up on the Senate floor, with Bond eventually prevailing.
"There was a lot of fur flying," Dorgan recalled.
This year, the upstream senators have gone after the barge industry, arguing that too much water is being wasted to essentially prop up a dying industry. Dorgan complained that a third of the water annually shifted from reservoirs into the Missouri is needed solely to improve navigation for barges. During a recent hearing on the Army Corps of Engineers, he pressed John Paul Woodley Jr., assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, who is responsible for the Corps, to reassess its Missouri River priorities.
"I feel very strongly, as do many in the upstream states, that we are systematically cheated," Dorgan told Woodley. Dorgan said that although the drought is an act of nature, "the management of the river is another part of it, and we're tired of it, and it needs to be solved."
"I am deeply sympathetic with your views, Senator," Woodley said, noting that support for navigation is mandated by statute.
What no one disputes is that the drought is having a devastating effect on the river. Normally the Missouri River system contains about 58 million acre-feet of water, but the level has dropped to below 38 million acre-feet.
Upstream, the drought is costing small towns and Indian reservations drinking water. In Parshall, N.D., on the Fort Berthold Reservation, the Corps had to extend the town's waterline to reach Lake Sakakawea. When the water receded further, residents gave up and dug wells.
A reservation at Fort Yates, N.D., lost all water for a time.
Fishing is big business on the reservoirs, but access is increasingly limited, as the water's edge retreats further from the cabins and tackle shops that once sat on the shoreline. Boat docks on Montana's Fort Peck Reservoir -- noted for its walleye fishing -- are surrounded by grasslands, stranded a mile from the receding shoreline.
The Missouri has never lived up to long-ago expectations that it would become a principal transportation corridor, similar to the Mississippi. In 1945, Congress authorized clearing a nine-foot-deep, 735-mile navigational channel from Sioux City, Iowa, to the confluence just north of St. Louis. Construction was completed in 1981.
The Army Corps of Engineers had projected that Missouri barge traffic, mostly agriculture-related, would increase steadily, to 5 million tons by 1980, from 1.1 million tons in 1960. Shipments exceeded projections in the early years, peaking at 3.3 million tons in 1977. But they have since declined. By 2000, annual barge traffic had fallen to 1.3 million tons -- or 74 percent below the original projections, according to research by C. Phillip Baumel of Iowa State University and Jerry Van Der Kamp, executive vice president of Agri Industries of West Des Moines.
Today, the barge industry has shriveled to a few companies. In 2004, the drought shortened the Missouri's eight-month shipping season by 47 days. For the past few years, barge operators have had to contend with an eight-foot-deep channel, a foot shallower than normal, which reduces the load they can carry by roughly the equivalent of their profit margin.
Barge operators tend to still see a bit of romance in river travel. Blaske started in the business as a deckhand during summer breaks from school. After college and a stint in shipyard management, he joined the family business in 1978. Soon, he was operating 85 barges, hauling fertilizer upstream and grain downstream, to and from Sioux City.
It was during an earlier drought in the 1980s that Blaske first recalls hearing complaints from the upstream folks. On the lower portion of the river, water levels had fallen, but barge traffic was not drastically affected, because the river channel was sufficiently deep. But the 1993 flood damaged the channel, and it wasn't fixed when the current drought struck in the late 1990s.
"You ran into a lot of stuff," Blaske said. His barges were damaged, shipments were delayed and customers started wondering, "Why should we even look at the river?"
A few niche businesses cannot get by without barges, and for now, they are the only customers. One company, Magnolia Marine, uses custom-built barges to haul a special type of asphalt. The nuclear power plant in Callaway, Mo., is using barges to ship replacement equipment that is too large for rail or trucks. But the barge industry's mainstay has always been agricultural products, and officials say those customers will not return until the river stabilizes.
"We're in a downward spiral," said Mike Wells, deputy director and chief of water resources at the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. He is urging barge operators to return to the river as soon as conditions improve. "We think there's a viable navigation industry if we can get the river back."
Bond is trying to protect the barge operators but says he also represents farmers and other shipping customers who must contend with higher freight costs for rail and trucks because of the loss of river commerce. "We have to have the competition," he said. His office is prepared to pounce if Dorgan acts on his buyout idea.