“The Big Muddy,” Too thin to plow, too thick to drink,” “Riverboat graveyard.”
These are only some of the names given to the Missouri River when it flowed freely over its 2,341 mile length, from the Rocky Mountains to its mouth at the Mississippi River at St. Louis, flowing through 10 states, past 28 Native American tribes and 10 million people. The Big Muddy reportedly wrecked 297 steamboats between 1832 and 1910. Even in periods of drought, the Missouri River was still a flooding threat because of its large drainage area of more than one-sixth of the United States.
The Missouri River caused millions of dollars in damages when it flooded. These floods could be disastrous, taking property and sometimes lives in its wild flow. In 1943, thousands of acres of farmland were flooded. Airport runways at Omaha sat under 8 feet of water. Factories, highways and railroads were flooded. This flooding hampered the war-time military effort. Congress heard a plea for flood relief after the devastation of 1943. Congress asked agencies to work together.
Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1944, also known as the Pick-Sloan Plan (1970), to capture those benefits through construction of dams on the river. Two studies – one by the U.S. Corps of Engineers under the direction of Col. Lewis A. Pick and another led by Asst. Commissioner W. Glenn Sloan of the Bureau of Reclamation – provided the basis for the act. Pick focused on flood control and navigation as primary benefits. Sloan focused on hydropower and irrigation as the core benefits. Domestic water supplies and recreation were recognized but not cited as significant benefits. Even though flood risk cannot be eliminated, the Missouri River mainstem dams have prevented billions in damages to property and infrastructure. Today’s floods would be much worse without them.
What does the reservoir mean to people today? The Corps of Engineers estimates the economic benefits related to the Missouri River system to be more than $1 billion annually. In fiscal year 2010, the estimated benefits grew to $1.6 billion primarily due to flood control during a very wet year.