A river forever changed by the power of humans flows beneath this bridge.
For more than a century, man has worked to tame the natural cycles of the Missouri River and exploit its power. There are benefits. Dams hold back floodwaters that once threatened bottom land farmers and residents of Omaha, Council Bluffs and other towns along its banks. A narrow and deep navigation channel was created to make barge shipping more efficient. Stable water levels assured communities along the river a constant, reliable water supply. And water released from the dams generates hydroelectric power.
But there are also costs. Lost in these transformations were 154,000 acres of aquatic habitat and 354,000 acres of river-dependent habitat. Islands and sandbars are mostly gone, as are side channels, chutes, backwaters and half of the river's surface area. Most of the sediment that once coursed the river and is critical to river function is now trapped in upstream reservoirs.
By 2008, of the 67 species of fish native to the Missouri River, 51 are now rare or reduced in number, or in the case of the pallid sturgeon, endangered. Birds and mammals also suffer, including the threatened piping plover and endangered interior least tern, both of which require sandbars for nesting habitat. An endangered clam, the scaleshell mussel has also been found on the river, but is in decline because of the loss of slackwater habitats found in backwaters, off channel areas that were lost during channelization and changes in hydrology and sediment transport due to construction of the dams. Even the insects and aquatic invertebrates at the base of the food chain are affected.
Change is coming once again, this time with the hope of restoring the fragile ecosystem of the river. Through its Missouri River Fish and Wildlife Mitigation Project, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, and Iowa Department of Natural Resources have been working to regain the lost habitat by reopening chutes and backwaters and modifying or adding structures in the main channel to create sandbars and other shallow water habitat. Efforts will also be made to mimic the natural cycles of the spring rise to ensure the continued existence of declining native species.
We are just beginning to understand how our actions have affected the Missouri River. Now we must take what we have learned and continue to work to restore the river ecosystem.
With time, we can learn to coexist with the river, A River of Hope.