Statement of Scott C. Faber, American Rivers
on the Water Resources Development Act of 1998
before the Senate Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure,
Committee on Environment and Public Works
June 23, 1998

Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to testify on the Water Resources Development Act of 1998. My name is Scott Faber and I am the Director of Floodplain Programs for American Rivers, a national river conservation group based in Washington, DC.

I would like to share our strong support for three nationally-important initiatives: S. 1399, the Missouri River Enhancement Program proposed by Senator Bond; expansion of the Environmental Management Program for the Upper Mississippi River; and the Challenge 21 Program proposed by the Corps of Engineers.

Missouri River Enhancement Program

As we near the 200th anniversary of Lewis & Clark's historic voyage up the Missouri River, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to boost recreation and tourism, revitalize riverfront communities, and restore habitat for river wildlife. In the same year that the Army Corps was founded, Lewis & Clark's Corps of Discovery was undertaking one of the greatest adventures in American History.

In 1804, Lewis and Clark bore witness to some of nature's greatest scenes. Far more than explorers, Lewis and Clark were also pioneering naturalists. Their journals are filled with descriptions of the river valley and its wild inhabitants, ranging from herds of 10,000 buffalo to a flock of white pelicans more than three miles long. The Corps of Discovery recorded scores of plants, insects, fish, birds, and animals previously unknown to science, ranging from least terns and prairie dogs to cutthroat trout.

The Missouri River of Lewis and Clark featured thousands of islands and sandbars separated by two constantly shifting channels. Dense forests, shallow wetlands, and endless prairies bordered the river. Water also flowed through thousands of smaller side channels that provided a wide variety of water depths and speeds.

The river was in a constant state of change. As snow melted and spring rains fell, floods inundated riverside land, replacing ancient hickory and elm with cottonwood and willow. Eroding banks contributed the basic building materials for sandbars, islands, and snags.

Floods also acted as a reproductive cue, and allowed fish to migrate out of the river's main channels into slower, shallow water on the floodplain to spawn. As flood waters receded, trees were washed into the river and accumulated in side channels, fueling the production of insects consumed by fish and waterfowl. As river levels fell, sandbars emerged, allowing terns, plovers, and other shorebirds to nest and forage. More than 500 different species of fish and wildlife relied upon this dynamic template for their survival.

Mostly, what Lewis and Clark saw, we cannot. Nearly 200 years after their voyage of discovery, Lewis and Clark would hardly recognize the Missouri River. Today, white pelicans are rarely seen on the Missouri, and the least tern and several other species are considered endangered by the federal government.

Dams and channels created to support navigation, generate hydropower and reduce flooding have dramatically altered the nation's longest river, eliminating the natural meanders and oxbows that once supported one of the world's most diverse fisheries. Engineers forced the river's restless, braided channels into a single, deep, stabilized navigation canal. The river was narrowed by half and shortened by 127 miles. Nearly all of the river's islands and sandbars were lost. As nurseries for wildlife were destroyed, one-fifth of the fish species native to the Missouri have been placed on federal and state watch lists. Many species have fallen to less than 10 percent of their historic population levels.

As the Corps of Engineers replaced hundreds of shallow, slow moving channels with a swift, deeper canal, it eliminated the places fish used to feed, reproduce, and conserve energy. As forests and prairies have been replaced with corn and soybeans sequestered behind levees, trees are no longer washed into the river during floods and fish can no longer migrate onto the river's floodplain to spawn. The construction of dams sharply reduced the amount of sand and silt transported by the Big Muddy, eliminating the building materials for islands and sandbars and encouraging the river to dig an ever-deeper channel. The amount of sand and silt transported by the river fell by two-thirds, eliminating the muddy shroud that once protected catfish and bigmouth buffalo from sight-feeding predators. Dam operations interrupt the rising flows which once triggered reproduction and migration.

Sturgeon, paddlefish, catfish, chubs, minnows, and other fish species that evolved in the formerly shallow, muddy, and ever-changing Missouri have rapidly declined. The pallid sturgeon, a species that emerged over 150 million years ago, has been nearly eliminated in 50 years. Even catfish - the cornerstone of the river's commercial fishing industry - are becoming rare. Consequently, the number of commercial fishers has dropped from nearly 1,000 to less than 400.

The loss of sandbars has reduced nesting habitat for two federally endangered birds, the least tern and the piping plover. Both birds nest on barren sandbars and forage in shallow water. But today, sandbars are frequently submerged during the summer nesting season. In addition, poorly timed flows often destroy established nests, and the absence of high flows allows sandbars to become overgrown with vegetation. Other shorebirds, wading birds, and waterfowl have declined as places to nest, forage, and rest have been eliminated, and the number of thrushes, warblers, wrens, sparrows, and other small perching birds which once used the river's floodplain during their annual migration has also dropped.

As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Lewis & Clark's voyage of discovery, millions of Americans will re-trace their steps. Today, we can only imagine what Lewis and Clark saw. We cannot restore the river Lewis and Clark knew, but we can repair a river that will attract recreation and tourism, reestablish riverfronts as community centers, and restore habitat for river wildlife. We can create a Missouri River Lewis and Clark would recognize.

The River Enhancement Program proposed by Senator Bond can be the centerpiece of these efforts. Unlike the existing Missouri River Fish and Wildlife Mitigation Program, which authorizes the Corps to re-open historic side channels and sloughs, S. 1399 authorizes the Corps to modify the rip-rap, wing dikes and other river training structures which line the Missouri's bank to create river habitat - without interfering with commercial navigation or private property rights. S. 1399 reflects the dramatic change that is occurring within the Corps of Engineers. No longer merely dam builders, today's Corps of Engineers is struggling to strike a balance between the needs of nature and navigation. This program takes a decisive and aggressive step toward rehabilitation of the Missouri River - the type of action which will restore the river to a condition that even Lewis and Clark would recognize.

We strongly urge you, Mr. Chairman, to advance the rehabilitation of the Missouri River and the revitalization of its riverside communities by including the River Enhancement Program in the Water Resources Development Act of 1998.

Upper Mississippi River Environmental Management Program

Like the Missouri, the long-term health of the Mississippi River from Saint Paul to Saint Louis is threatened.

Dams, levees and river training structures have robbed the Mississippi of its power to create new habitat during periods of high flow. Sloughs, side channels and backwaters which fill with silt and sediment are no longer replaced during floods but are instead replaced by state and federal restoration programs.

The Environmental Management Program on the Upper Mississippi River has restored 28,000 acres of habitat for river wildlife in five states and dramatically improved our understanding of the river's needs. With little fanfare, the Saint Louis District of the Corps of Engineers changed dam operations on the Mississippi River to quietly create more than 3,000 acres of new habitat for river wildlife.

Unfortunately, habitat is being lost faster than it can be replaced, and the Corps recently concluded that -- absent action by the Congress -- the Upper Mississippi River will experience a shift to less desirable fish species, poorer water quality and fewer areas which are able to support migratory waterfowl. Far more than fish and wildlife are at stake. More than 12 million people use the Upper Mississippi River for recreational purposes each year, spending $1.2 billion and supporting 18,000 jobs.

By increasing the authorized spending level for the Environmental Management Program from $19.4 to $33.2 million, Congress can ensure that the Upper Mississippi River continues to be both a working river and a living river. The Upper Mississippi is the hardest working river in the nation, annually moving more than 90 million tons of cargo The river is also a nationally-significant natural resource, sheltering more than 400 different species of wildlife, acting as the migration corridor for 40 percent of North America's waterfowl, and harboring the nation's most ancient lineage of freshwater fish.

Challenge 21 Initiative

Finally, I would like to share our strong support for the Challenge 21 Initiative. The Corps of Engineers has developed the Challenge 21 Initiative to fill an important void in the Corps' flood loss reduction arsenal - pre-disaster hazard mitigation. Despite our efforts, the overall cost of disasters continues to grow. From 1989 to 1993, the average annual losses from disasters were $3,3 billion. But, in the last four years, average annual losses from disasters have quadrupled to $13 billion. Whether we live in disaster-prone areas or not, all Americans have felt the effect of these devastating natural disasters. Since 1989, FEMA's disaster costs have topped $22 billion, a 550% increase over the previous ten years.

While structural projects will continue to be needed, our nation's flood control experts have urged us to place greater reliance on voluntary relocation, elevation and other solutions which permanently reduce the threat of flood losses while simultaneously protecting streamside habitat.

The land bordering our rivers and streams is critically important to river health - acting as a buffer which filters polluted runoff; providing shade which reduces water temperatures; contributing the leaves, trees and other debris that make up the base of the aquatic food chain; giving the river more room to spread out during periods of high flow; and providing spawning habitat for a wide variety of species.

Unlike structural flood control projects, the Challenge 21 Initiative is designed to satisfy all of the needs of riverside communities - enhanced water quality, reduced flood losses, habitat for river wildlife, and increased opportunities for recreation. Many riverside communities are struggling to identify measures which reduce flood losses while simultaneously re-establishing their riverfronts as community centers. The Challenge 21 Initiative is designed to meet their long-term economic and environmental needs.

We have already seen the benefits of voluntary relocation in places like Arnold, Missouri, which was devastated by the Great Flood of 1993. Disaster relief for Arnold's flood victims topped $2 million in 1993. But, following a voluntary relocation program, federal assistance was less than $40,000 when floodwaters returned in 1995. Overall, more than 20,000 homes and businesses across the nation have been voluntarily relocated, elevated or acquired since 1993.

We strongly support the Challenge 21 Initiative and other efforts to expand pre-disaster and post-disaster mitigation efforts. And, we urge you to meet the long-term needs of the Missouri River and the Upper Mississippi River by authorizing the Missouri River Enhancement Program proposed by Senator Bond, and by expanding the Environmental Management Program for the Upper Mississippi River.

Thank you for opportunity to provide testimony this morning. I would be happy to respond to your questions.