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Big drop in Missouri River water levels becoming critical problem

Updated: 2014-01-21T16:01:19Z


The Kansas City Star

It’s easy to take the Missouri River for granted. It just rolls along through the Kansas City area, seemingly everlasting and unchanging.

But the Big Muddy is in fact changing, and not in a good way. Truth is, it isn’t as muddy as it used to be, and in some ways it isn’t muddy enough.

The river bed and water levels have been slowly dropping for decades to the point that it’s becoming a real threat to area utilities, not to mention bridges and levees. Agencies warn that if the problem isn’t addressed soon it could become a crisis.

“It’s just about at a critical stage,” said Kansas City Water Services Director Terry Leeds, the head of one of the utilities most affected by dropping water levels.

“It’s a really important challenge,” agreed Tom Jacobs, director of environmental programs for the Mid-America Regional Council, which is working with nearly two dozen agencies on the problem.

Those public utilities and agencies calculate it has already cost them tens of millions of dollars to deal with the situation.

If action isn’t taken soon, representatives of Kansas City Water Services and other utilities estimate, the costs to modify and replace infrastructure could exceed $350 million.

And if the problem is allowed to worsen and the levees are undermined, that could be catastrophic, warned Lynda Hoffman, manager of Kansas City Water Services’ waterways division.

Fortunately, recent studies have shown some possible solutions, said Christina Ostrander, project manager and planner for the Army Corps of Engineers’ Kansas City District, who is overseeing the river degradation study.

A broad range of agencies are contributing funds for continued research, and they hope to come up with a final plan by the end of 2015.

Corps of Engineers studies show the problem has been building for decades. The river level varies greatly depending on location, with some very deep spots and holes. But the Corps says it averages nine feet for navigation.

Hoffman, who has been briefed on the studies, said that between 1930 and 2005 the river bed and water levels dropped from six to 10 feet from St. Joseph to Waverly, Mo., but especially affecting the Kansas City area. It’s estimated the river could drop six to eight feet more in the next 30 years if nothing is done.

Leeds said that if the river level drops even an additional two feet, it could affect Kansas City’s water intake just north of the Wheeler Downtown Airport –– and that would jeopardize the utility’s ability to tap the primary source of Kansas City’s drinking water. The city is already looking at temporary solutions such as wells and extra pumps, but it needs a permanent fix.

There are several causes to the problem, but everyone agrees this is not about water wars with upriver states, which have reservoirs and want to maintain their water levels for recreation and other purposes.

Instead, Ostrander and others said, causes include historical river management, with dikes and spills and reservoirs that helped keep the Missouri River channel locked in place for navigation and flood control. That cut off the supply of a lot of the sediment that gave the river its nickname, Big Muddy.

So the river can’t meander and pull sediment from the banks, Ostrander said, and the fast-moving flow scours out the sediment that does reach the river, gradually lowering the bed and the water level.

Commercial dredging for barge traffic has been a contributing factor, although Hoffman said the problem would still exist even if dredging stopped. Drought is a factor. Even major floods are a factor, because those waters scour the bed. After the flood, the bed rebounds, but not to previous levels.

It’s already taking a heavy toll on certain utilities, including Johnson County WaterOne.

WaterOne spokeswoman Mandy Cawby said the agency began experiencing bed degradation problems as far back as 2003. It had to rent pumps as a backup and installed a low-water-level pumping facility at its Missouri River intake in Wyandotte County, at a construction cost of $2 million. Its related annual operating expenses total $20,000 in energy and $750,000 in treatment.

If the problem isn’t solved, WaterOne estimates it would have to spend $50 million to modify or replace facilities.

As the Missouri River bed drops, it also lowers the beds of tributaries such as the Blue River, Line Creek and the Kansas River.

Leeds said Kansas City and Riverside had to team on a creek bank stabilization project in 2012, after bed lowering exposed a city sewer. The cost of that project was $277,000.

The Missouri Department of Transportation has had to do some bank stabilization along the tributaries to protect some of its bridge pier foundations, said Rick Kingery, district bridge engineer for MoDOT in Kansas City.

The department so far has not seen serious threats to its bridges on the Missouri River, Kingery said.

“Right now we’re OK, but we don’t want it to get any worse,” he said. “Any further degradation could cause us problems.”

The Mid-America Regional Council has been working with nearly two dozen utilities, railroads, cities, levee districts and the Corps of Engineers, and a set of promising alternatives is emerging, Ostrander said. The study should be completed in 2015, at a total cost of more than $5 million that is being shared by the federal government and agencies.

Solutions could include widening the channel at certain locations and putting in rock structures across the river bed at some locations to hold it in place and build it up, while still allowing for navigation, she said.

Very preliminary estimates are that the solutions could cost up to $100 million or $150 million, but it would still be much less expensive than the alternative and could potentially save taxpayer dollars, said John Grothaus, chief of plan formulation with the Corps.

It’s not yet known who would pay those costs, although Leeds and others said they hope the federal government will pick up the tab. If funds materialize, design for the solutions could begin in 2016, Grothaus said.

Ostrander, Hoffman and others are just encouraged that solutions are emerging.

“I think we’re more encouraged than we were when we started,” Ostrander said. “It won’t be a fix we can implement in a six-month time frame and everything is good. But it’s something that can be fixed over time.”

To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to

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