Incite Trouble on the Mississippi 
Text by Ted Williams photos by Bob Hurt

The Upper Mississippi has been dammed to near death. Now the Army Corps of Engineers wants to expand locks—a move even its own people call "a waste of taxpayers' money."

Last September the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers adopted an official prayer, in which it thanks the "engineer of all eternity" for "holding the plumb line of the cosmos" and beseeches him to guide it in "making rough places smooth, crooked ways straight and . . . our calculations accurate." At least in the last of these requests, the agency's prayers had already been answered. In April 1998, Donald Sweeney, the Corps' own Ph.D. economist, presented preliminary figures on a proposed plan to double the length of seven 600-foot locks on the Upper Mississippi River System. The expansion would allow 1,100-foot tows of 15 barges to go through the locks without uncoupling, saving about an hour per lock. The cost of the project would be about $1 billion, the benefits about $750 million. Sweeney, a 22-year veteran of the agency who had been recognized as a superstar in every performance report ever issued by his superiors, hadn't just punched buttons on his pocket calculator. For five years he had headed a team of 14 economists and 5 contractors who monitored barge traffic, studied congestion, analyzed grain exports, and accurately calculated benefits.

But what the Corps prays for and what it really wants are entirely different things. According to a sworn affidavit Sweeney filed in February 2000 with the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), he was ordered to "ignore" and "alter" data and "arbitrarily reduce" expenses in order "to produce a seemingly favorable benefit-to-cost ratio for immediately extending the length of existing locks." The OSC has determined that Sweeney's charges have merit, and an investigation by the Army Inspector General is under way. 

In his affidavit, Sweeney reports that on September 18, 1998, Gerald Barnes, deputy for project management of the Corps' St. Louis District, "told me to find a way to justify large-scale measures in the near term for the [study], or the Mississippi Valley District office would find an economist who would, and I would be out of my job as technical manager." Sweeney replied that he was constrained by professional integrity. A week later he was removed as leader of the economic study team. (Barnes says he cannot comment because the investigation is ongoing.) The new team leader, economist Richard Manguno, also found that the lock expansion was not economically justified. According to sworn written testimony he gave to Senate investigators in April, Manguno says that he, too, was told to alter his figures, and eventually he complied. Now the Corps is saying that the costs don't outweigh the benefits after all, and that actually the reverse is true.

After Sweeney was taken off the study, he had nothing to do, so the Corps did what it does best: make work. Despite the fact that he is an economist, it ordered him to oversee construction of a harbor on the Mississippi in southeastern Missouri. "Fine," he said. "Teach me how." His superiors allowed that training would indeed be prudent, but somehow they didn't get around to providing any. He was told to do the project anyway, and when he said he wouldn't because he couldn't, he was given a three-day suspension for "insubordination." That's when he wrote his whistleblower affidavit.

Attached to the affidavit are internal memos from the Corps' military brass that reveal a secret plan to further engorge the annual civil-works appropriation of the Mississippi Valley Division by $100 million per year for the next five years. "If that goal is met, we are all going to be very busy," effused the Division's Lenard Ross in a summary of a meeting with the Corps' military commanders. "To grow the civil works program, [headquarters] and the Division have agreed to get creative. They will be looking for ways to get [studies] to 'yes' as fast as possible. We have been encouraged to have our study managers not take 'no' for an answer."

On September 25, 1998, team member Dudley Hanson summarized orders from Major General Russell Fuhrman, then the Corps' director of civil works, in this memo to the team: "If [data] do not capture the need for navigation improvements, then we have to figure out some other way to do it. . . . He [Fuhrman] directs that we develop evidence or data to support a defensible set of capacity enhancement projects. We need to know what the mechanism is that drives the benefits up."

The Corps even has an internal computer slide presentation on how to bloat itself by $2.2 billion over the next five years. In one slide it cites its own "Principles & Guidelines" as first on a list of "Impediments to Growth."

The Corps' definition of the "Upper Mississippi River System" is the 858 miles of main stem from Minneapolis to Cairo, Illinois, the Illinois River, and the navigable portions of the Minnesota, St. Croix, Black, and Kaskaskia rivers. The system accommodates about 125 million tons of barged goods a year. If the locks are expanded, that figure could double in 50 years, and it is this rise in traffic that would have the most serious effect on the river's ecosystem. 

Up until the late 1800s, before the Corps began systematically "improving" the Upper Mississippi, the entire floodplain was a rich mosaic of wooded islands, wetlands, sloughs, ponds, lakes, prairies, and bottomland forests. In spring the unimproved river would creep over its floodplain, laying down a gentle snow of nutrients that fueled the whole ecosystem, scattering fish that had evolved to broadcast their eggs over flooded bottomland and whose young fattened on the rich plankton blooms that poured from the saturated earth. Now most of the islands are underwater, 50 percent of the floodplain is sealed off by levees, and much of the main channel is locked into place by wing dams, revetments, and riprap. In order to provide a nine-foot-deep channel for barge traffic, 36 dams have converted a rising, falling, life-giving river system to a chain of deadwaters.

"There are some sacred cows for the Corps," observes Scott Faber of American Rivers, the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, "and one is the Upper Mississippi. It's their personal turf. For years they've run it like a military junta runs a third-world country." 

Consider the case of Major Charles Hall, a district engineer at Rock Island, Illinois. In 1927 he was ordered to study the economic feasibility of dam construction for navigation. Like Sweeney, he presented accurate calculations that showed costs to outweigh benefits, and like Sweeney he was overruled by his superiors when special interests complained. Two years later Hall was ordered to study the impacts the dams and locks would have on fish and wildlife. He found that making a nine-foot-deep barge canal out of the Upper Mississippi would "radically change" the ecosystem by creating a "succession of stagnant or sluggish pools." Businessmen in Minneapolis complained to Hall's superiors, asserting that commerce was being stifled by an individual "not in sympathy with the project." The Minneapolis Journal called Hall's findings "gratuitous opinions" and described his duties as "neither floral nor faunal, but engineering." Hall was taken off this study, too. On June 3, 1930, Congress authorized the dams, even though the Corps' final report wasn't out. It has been ever thus.

These days the special interests pressuring the Corps to disregard its own economic data are the barge owners. Their lobby, the Midwest Area River Coalition 2000, is claiming that the Corps didn't cook the books at all but is being victimized by the "pernicious attacks" and "hyperbole" of environmental extremists whose "orchestrated effort apparently aims at reversing the vision our forefathers had in harnessing the power of rivers."

But the vision of our forefathers wasn't always 20/20. For instance, Minneapolis has never had any real need to be connected to the barge channel of the Mississippi. Yet when Hubert Humphrey was elected mayor of the city in 1945, he began crusading for two monstrous, horrendously expensive locks to circumvent a steep waterfall. And he kept at it when he moved to the U.S. Senate three years later. Construction began in 1950. That's how Corps navigation projects have always been conceived--not by necessity but by politician. Today Minneapolis is working on a riverfront plan that would re-move all industry and close the city port.

There has been no increase in barge traffic on the river since 1992. Still, taxpayers are paying 90 to 95 percent of the cost of maintaining the Upper Mississippi's navigation system (about $158 million a year, and that's not counting the $1 billion for lock expansion). You'd think the tax hawks would be as mad as flipped-over snapping turtles, and they are. Ralph DeGennaro, executive director of Taxpayers for Common Sense, declares that the Corps is "out of control" and that its credo is: "Damn the taxpayers and full speed ahead."

On the morning of April 5, 2000, in the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge near Wabasha, Minnesota, I caught a glimpse of the river the way it used to be, before Congress turned the Corps loose on it. What, I wondered, is the dollar value of the two dozen bald eagles I saw from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's outboard-powered skiff? Along the banks and in the backwaters they dipped out of silver maples, orbited nests in ancient cottonwoods, and rose from the river into the brightening sky, shaking water and flashing sunlight. And how much for the pileated woodpecker swooping up onto the snag; or the muskrat sneaking under the bank with his mouth stuffed with greens; or the great blue herons and tree swallows sailing overhead; or the hooded mergansers and wood ducks bursting out of the sloughs; or the turtles that left their eggshells all over the sandy islands; or the pike, bluegills, catfish, paddlefish, sturgeon, and smallmouth bass that cruised beneath us? All these creatures provide real economic benefits that, to some extent, will be sacrificed by the increase in barge traffic that lock expansion will promote. If the Corps tallied these costs, its proposal would flunk even the bogus, post-Sweeney analysis. A 1999 study for the Fish and Wildlife Service by Industrial Economics, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, sets the economic contribution of fishing, hunting, wildlife viewing, and sightseeing along the Upper Mississippi at $6.6 billion per year.

With me on the river were Bob Drieslein and Cindy Samples of the Fish and Wildlife Service's Winona, Minnesota, office; MaryBeth Garrigan, director of the National Eagle Center in Wabasha; and Dan McGuiness, director of the National Audubon Society's Upper Mississippi River Campaign. The refuge's 200,000 acres extend 261 miles southward from Wabasha to just upstream of Rock Island, Illinois, providing habitat for at least 292 species of birds, 57 species of mammals, 37 species of amphibians and reptiles, and 118 species of fish. It's the most popular of all national wildlife refuges, attracting about 3.5 million visitors a year--more than Yellowstone National Park.

To celebrate the refuge's 75th birthday, McGuiness, accompanied by staff and volunteers, spent most of August 1999 traversing 751 river miles in a houseboat called the Audubon Ark, discussing the real costs of lock expansion with about 1,200 visitors and 50 reporters. "Are we just accountants bartering fish and wildlife for barges?" he asked them. 

So far, that's exactly what we are. For example, according to the Corps' own data, pressure or direct impact from the huge propellers of a single tow boat can be expected to kill or maim 14 adult gizzard shad, shovelnose sturgeon, and smallmouth buffalo fish per kilometer. This means that on the 858-mile trip from Cairo, Illinois, to Minneapolis, each tow boat could kill 19,730 of these fish, and there are 124 other species in this section. 

Another cost is habitat loss caused by more barge wakes. The waves erode shoreline vegetation, muddying the water, which, in turn, kills aquatic vegetation by cutting off sunlight. In 1986, when the Corps got final permission from Congress to build the planet's biggest civil engineering project--Locks and Dam 26 in Alton, Illinois--it promised that this was all the navigation expansion needed, that it wouldn't be back for more. As part of the deal the Corps agreed in writing to do 16 studies on the impact of the increased barge wakes on fish and wildlife. But most of these studies were never done, and most of the questions still haven't been answered, even though the Corps has spent $40 million on the study Sweeney worked on.

Now 10 percent of the species that occur along the Upper Mississippi are classified as rare, threatened, or endangered in one or more of the basin states (Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin), and seven are listed under the Endangered Species Act. The river had one of the world's richest mussel faunas, but pollution, dredging, dams, barges, and commercial harvest have reduced documented species from 50 to 30. Two of the survivors are federally endangered, and 15 others are state listed. One of the disappearing species--the ebony shell, whose larvae attach themselves to the gills of skipjack herring in order to move upstream--used to be the dominant mussel in the Upper Mississippi. But when the dams went up, skipjacks couldn't migrate, and the population of ebony shells crashed.

At least 15 species of Mississippi fish now face extirpation. Most of them require gravel bottoms or quiet backwaters without excessive sedimentation. The ancient giants of the Mississippi--the endangered pallid sturgeon and the plankton-grazing paddlefish (a candidate for listing)--must move great distances to find a rock-rubble bottom for spawning. But dams block them and slow the flows so that silt settles and covers up the rubble. Even where the bottom remains unburied, the females will reabsorb their eggs if they don't sense rising water.

This nation has a large and powerful adversary," the Corps explained in one of its old films on remaking rivers. "We are fighting Mother Nature. . . . It's a battle we have to fight day by day, year by year; the health of our economy depends on victory." The war is going badly.

Since World War II the Corps has spent nearly $100 billion (in 1999 dollars) trying to stop U.S. rivers from flooding, yet average annual flood damage has steadily climbed, to nearly $8 billion. "We harnessed it, straightened it, regulated it, shackled it," bragged the Corps as it fitted the Mississippi River system with an alleged flood barrier--a phalanx of levees longer, higher, and thicker than the Great Wall of China. Assured by these kinds of pronouncements, the public confidently moved into the floodplain. Then in 1993 the river yawned, as it does every few decades, inundating the dams, blowing apart the levees, killing 47 people, displacing 74,000 others, and destroying $15 billion worth of property. It was an act of engineer, but America called it "an act of God."

A full year later, as I surveyed flood damage along the Upper Mississippi in Illinois and Missouri, I saw fish and new vegetation in floodplain ponds that had been dry since the levees went up in the mid-1920s. Before then, fingers of the unimproved river would reach into these ponds every spring, collecting young fish and spreading spawners. Now, 70 years later, water and fish had arrived once more, and aquatic plants had sprouted from seeds that had been waiting in the earth all that time for the river to do its thing. On the inundated floodplain, behind the busted levees, smallmouth and bigmouth buffalo fish--native suckers that once sustained local economies--outproduced alien carp for the first time in the six years that records had been kept.

This is how the river had worked for 10,000 years before the dams and levees started going in. Spring floods would clear out some of the old hardwoods, spreading their seeds over rich earth newly washed with sunlight. Summer droughts would follow, leaving exposed mudflats where the seeds of cottonwoods could germinate and where shorebirds could feast on invertebrates.

Now both shorebirds and cottonwoods are disappearing, because we've bartered mudflats for barges. And the
mast-producing oaks and hickories, so valuable to wildlife, are being replaced with a monoculture of willow and silver maple, species tolerant of the perpetual high water caused by dams.

Last April I saw a carpet of reed canary grass everywhere I looked in the backwaters of the refuge. River ecologists believe that the loss of the natural flood cycle has somehow caused this native ground cover to become invasive. And Bob Drieslein blames the invasion, along with the unnatural profusion of water-tolerant trees, for degrading the habitat of the eastern massasauga--a diminutive, swamp-dependent rattlesnake being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

In Big Lake, one of the numerous backwater impoundments created by the dams, we ran aground on loose silt and had to turn back after traveling only 100 yards. In its early years, before it started filling in, Big Lake provided rich habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife. Low flows expose sediments to the air, allowing them to compact and harden into mudflats where emergent plants take root. But Big Lake has never had a chance to dry out and grow new plants that can serve as windbreaks. And the existing windbreaks--cattails, phragmites, and bullrushes--are being battered by wind-generated waves. Their loss, in turn, permits even larger waves that further erode the shoreline, creating and stirring up even more light-blocking sediments. The silt is also killing the wild celery relished by ducks. Ten miles downstream, at a similar backwater lake called Weaver Bottoms, waves and sedimentation are killing the arrowhead. Tundra swans used to stop here by the thousands on their spring and fall migrations, glutting themselves for weeks on arrowhead tubers; now a few hundred stop for only a day or two. Thus do the ecosystems of "improved" rivers unravel.

At this writing, the Corps is preparing a draft environmental-impact statement on the lock expansion, which the public needs to scrutinize and challenge, Sweeney says. As for Sweeney, he is putting in his time with the Corps, but he says his relationship with management is "coldly professional" and that he is no longer allowed to do anything important. "We can't have the Corps doing its own feasibility studies," he told me. "It's like having my 11-year-old son do a study about how much ice cream he should have after dinner. I know what the answer's going to be. Your readers should view with skepticism anything the Corps proposes to do. The current system is structured to give a biased answer."

Just how lawless has the Corps become? I asked Sweeney if civilians still control it, as federal statute requires. "Absolutely not," he replied. "I would say more than ever it's a military-run organization." The Corps' military pooh-bahs have traditionally used trick arithmetic to justify environmentally hurtful, make-work proj-ects, but Sweeney says they're getting more brazen:  "There has always been this subtle, unstated pressure. But when I first started 22 years ago, if it really wasn't a feasible project, it was okay to say so. And if the politician wanted to go ahead and build it anyway, that was his call, and he'd have to pay the price without our support. In those days you would give a project as many breaks as you reasonably could, but nobody would ask you to go past the line where you just said professionally, 'I can't do this anymore.' Now it's not okay to say no."

When I asked if he was going to keep working for the Corps, he said, "I don't see how I can." That's a shame, because there aren't many Corps employees with his kind of sand. For every Don Sweeney who won't break the law, even to keep a job, there are 100 who flout it just because that's the way the outfit does business.

Perhaps Sweeney has not sacrificed his career in vain. "If there is any good that can come of my disclosure," he says, "it would be a truly independent evaluation of Corps proposals. Maybe the creation of some sort of really independent study authority.  Maybe make the Corps of Engineers just engineers." For all on earth who advocate the conservation of fish, wildlife, and tax dollars, that's a consummation devoutly to be wished for. And for the great engineer in the sky, it may be the best of all prescriptions for making "crooked ways straight." 

Ted Williams wrote "Clinton's Last Stand" in the May-June Audubon.

What You Can Do

SAVE THE MISSISSIPPI The National Audubon Society's Upper Mississippi River Campaign is fighting lock expansion, working to restore natural habitats, and educating the public. To get involved, contact Dan McGuiness, National Audubon Society, 26 East Exchange Street, Suite 110, St. Paul, MN 55101; or visit You can also: 

Meet the Audubon Ark The Audubon Ark will sail the Upper Mississippi October 1-26, providing a platform for talks, music, and information about wildlife. For a schedule of stops, call 651-290-1695.

Follow the Great Birding Trail Audubon chapters in the area are working on a trail that will follow the national wildlife refuges of the Upper Mississippi from its headwaters to the confluence with the Ohio River.

Support the National Eagle Center Next year ground will be broken for the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minnesota (651-565-4989). The center will include an interpretative area where people can learn about the Upper Mississippi ecosystem and the American bald eagles that live there.

Also see Stand Up for the Mississippi

© 2000  NASI

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