WaterOne board candidates on the issues: Degradation of Missouri River bed

Photo credit Melissa Johnson. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Last month, we asked our readers what issues they wanted to hear the candidates running for local office address ahead of this fall’s local elections primary. Based on the input we received, we developed a three-item questionnaire for candidates running for WaterOne board address.

Today we publish the candidates’ responses to item one:

Degradation of the Missouri River bed has become an increasing concern for the water district in recent years. What steps should Water One be taking to address the issue?

Water District Board Member 1

Terry Frederick (incumbent)

The Board and Staff at WaterOne first became involved in the Missouri River bed degradation issue in the early 2000’s when we began having issues at our Missouri River intake facility due to lower water levels. Adjustments were made at the intake to resolve the immediate problem and we brought the issue to the attention of the Corps of Engineers.

After working along with other local stakeholders and the Corps for many years, the Corps completed a Reconnaissance Study of the problem under the authority of the Flood Control Act of 1970 in 2009. Shortly thereafter, they commissioned a Feasibility Study on the issue. WaterOne and Kansas City, Missouri each contributed over $500,000 and substantial hours of in-kind work for these studies.

In May 2017, the Corps finally completed the Missouri River Bed Degradation Feasibility Study Technical Report and determined that there was not a feasible or effective construction project to solve the degradation problem and the only feasible solution was to eliminate or reduce sand and aggregate dredging on the river.

The dredging industry is regulated by the Corps of Engineers which issues permits to dredge sand and aggregate from the Missouri River. The five-year permits have been routinely granted. In 2015, WaterOne submitted public comments to the Corps and requested a public hearing to delay the renewal of the dredging permits pending the outcome of the study, but the requests were denied by the Corps because the Feasibility Study Technical Report was not complete.

Since the completion of the Feasibility Study Technical Report in 2017, WaterOne and other interested parties are working with the Corps to have the permits reviewed to prevent or reduce the future dredging on the Missouri River. This is needed to stop or slow down the degradation of the river bed. The permits are scheduled for renewal consideration by the Corps in 2020.

This is an important issue for WaterOne and the Board and Staff will continue to work with the Corps of Engineers and other interested parties toward a long-term solution to eliminate the degradation of the Missouri River bed to protect our water source and the availability of our water intake facilities.

The Corp of Engineers technical report can be found here.

Melanie Kraft

I believe WaterOne should work to engage with all organizations that have a stake in this issue of river degradation and work to limit and ultimately eliminate sand and gravel mining in the Kansas City river bed areas. I strongly encourage anyone interested in this topic to read the May 2017 report on Missouri River degradation.

The very informative, yet technical May 2017 Report from Mid-America Regional Council and Corp of Engineers discusses a lowering of the Missouri riverbed particularly in the Kansas City area. Degradation of the river has affected public infrastructure (water intakes, etc), and river bank stability. Also, included in the 2017 Report was information obtained from a 2011 Study.

According to the report, “In Kansas City, the river bed elevations still remain significantly degraded, despite slight recovery in the short-term.”

To summarize the May 2017 report, “Among the findings of the risk and uncertainty analysis was that the degradation in Kansas City would not have occurred if commercial sand and gravel mining was absent from the channel.”

Furthermore, as quoted from the 2017 report, “Commercial sand and gravel mining can impact large alluvial rivers in several ways. “The most obvious impact is that removal of bed material lowers the elevation of the river bed in the immediate vicinity of the extraction location, forming deep pits or holes on the bottom of the river. In high-sediment systems like the Missouri River, these holes quickly spread in the upstream and downstream direction while filling with incoming sediments. Bed degradation migrates upstream of the mining site due to an increase in slope caused by degradation in and downstream of the mine pit. Sediment-starved water leaves the mining site which can erode the channel bed downstream of the mined area (Kondolf, 1994). Over time, the volume mined from the river bed is dispersed from a deep pit in a localized dredging area to a small incremental drop in elevation that can extend miles upstream and downstream of the original pit location (Scott, 1973; Stevens et al, 1990; Rinaldi, Wuzga, and Surian, 2005). Because of known impacts associated with in-river mining, this practice has been banned in many other countries”

We have understood the major source of our riverbed degradation since the 2011 study and no corrections have been made to abate the problem, the report states“…over the next 50-year period of analysis [costs] could exceed $269 million (FY 2017dollars) if bed degradation is not addressed.”

The 2011 report revealed that “commercial sand and gravel mining cumulatively affected geomorphology (river geomorphology and sediment), water quality, aquatic resources including fish and wildlife habitat and diversity of habitat, threatened and endangered species, economics, cultural resources, and infrastructure”.

The solution is clear and the report make the solution clear, we need to stop the mining of sand and gravel from our riverbeds.

Water District Board Member 2

Greg Mitchell

The public needs to be better informed about the impact Missouri River bed degradation has on the ability to harvest water from the river, the impacts on water quality, and the impacts on other infrastructure like bridges and levees. The first critical action step is for WaterOne to engage in a robust communications plan with the Mid-America Regional Council and other stakeholders, to make this concern better known to the general public. A wide-spread understanding of this issue will be critical in accomplishing cooperation from the federal government.

In 2017 the Army Corp of Engineers presented findings that summarizes the problem, identified causes, and provided potential mitigation strategies. One of the findings is that degradation, especially in this region, is influenced by gravel and river rock mining operations. The river bed is being mined for gravel and rock but as these are extracted, they are needed to stabilize the river bed. In order for the river bed to be sustainable and for mining operations to remain sustainable, there needs to be a legal and regulatory framework to reduce impact. This may require limiting the amount of rock and gravel removed from certain locations or an indefinite moratorium on mining within an area. This effort will require federal intervention. WaterOne, and other stakeholders need to apply pressure on the federal government to develop a framework related to river mining operations.

Additionally, WaterOne and other stakeholders need to tap into federal resources to help fund a wide range of mitigation and consequential expenses related to the issue. It has been estimated the cost could run into the billions of dollars from damage to existing infrastructure and lost business revenues. WaterOne has already incurred significant expenses. Solutions will require extensive engineering and project management. The right response on the federal level will result in solutions to curb and restore the Missouri River bed.

It is critical to keep an open-mind about potential solutions to resolving this problem. We need to think of this issue as primarily an environmental and engineering problem, and not a political issue. No good guys, no bad guys, just a problem. This is a problem that needs to solved pragmatically. With leaders who will have an open-mind and will follow the science on this journey, I am confident we have the wherewithal to resolve this problem.

Robert Olson (incumbent)

As a board member of WaterOne, we have taken many steps to protect one of our most valuable asset: the Missouri river. We have seen the degregation and erosion that has been going on there and our board and staff has been working with the Corps of Engineers for over 15 years to address the issues of the Missouri River Bed Degradation to try to improve the water levels. WaterOne helped organize stakeholders through MARC, and invested $600,000 to fund the Corps Study in 2009. The study found that sand dredging caused the degradation problem. We have found that eliminating or severely reducing the sand dredging in the Kansas City reach is the only feasible method to improve the river bed degradation problem. The sand dredging permits have been approved for every five-year period and are coming up for renewal in 2020. WaterOne plans to ask the Corps to eliminate sand dredging on the Kansas City reach of the Missouri River and has started organizing stakeholders to advocate to the Corp against the sand dredging permits.

Water District Board Member 6

Dave Vander Veen

WaterOne is working with the Kansas City District Office of the U.S. Corps of Engineers (Corps) and the Mid America Regional Council (MARC) to address this issue. Based on a recent conversation with Mike Armstrong, General Manager of WaterOne, this collaboration has existed for many years, with specific attention paid to developing a solution to this issue.

The Corps completed a Missouri River Bed Degradation Feasibility Study in early 2009 and filed a final report in August 2009. The study revealed that there had been “a lowering of the river bed that has occurred with the largest impact beginning in the 1980’s. The bed degradation has affected public infrastructure, such as water intakes [which impacts our source of drinking water] and pipeline crossings; has affected bank stability in certain areas; and could potentially undermine dikes, revetments and levees designed to help navigation and to provide flood protection”. “The objectives of the study [were] to examine existing data to determine the current condition and potential future condition of the riverbed and to look for opportunities to reduce the bed degradation and eliminate impacts”.

The Corp’s report identified sand dredging as one of the main causes of the Missouri River bed degradation. During my conversation with Mike Armstrong, he explained to me that sand dredging work permits are renewed every five years and the current permit(s) expires in 2020. WaterOne is working closely with the Corps with the goal of ensuring that the dredging permits are not extended, or at a minimum, significantly cut back in 2020. This is important so the water levels are sufficient to provide an abundant fresh and clean water supply at all times, which is critically important during drought years when water levels are low. As a member of the Water One Board I will be a strong proponent of WaterOne following through and implementing this plan.

Whitney Wilson

The Army Corps of Engineers, the governing authority for the Missouri and Kaw rivers has long participated in a balancing act between public interest and need, the economics of a commodity (sand and gravel for construction), biology, and “special conditions scenarios.”

In 2017, The Mid America Regional Council, MARC, completed a feasibility study around solutions to the riverbed degradation situation. While it was an independent and balanced analysis, the appeal for additional Federal funding did not yield a positive result.

Analyses show dredging can negatively impact bridges, levees, adjacent wetlands, power supply, and other infrastructure along the river.

Dredging also affects water quality as the sand from the riverbed acts as a natural filtration mechanism for impurities in the water.

So to answer the question, WaterOne should support renewed efforts to obtain Federal funding to restore the Missouri riverbed. WaterOne should work closely with The Army Corps of Engineers, EPA, MARC, as well as other Federal and regional authorities to protect and sustainably use our water supply.

2020 will be an important year as the Missouri river dredging permits will need to be renewed. WaterOne should participate in those discussions and work towards the minimization of permitting.

WaterOne should review the hydrographic plans and adaptive management plan results produced by the Corps., and support swift action as the riverbed weakens.

WaterOne should continue to support the Missouri River Recovery Management Plan to avoid jeopardizing endangered species like the pallid sturgeon, interior least tern, and northern great plains piping plover.

With respect to drinking water in the United States, the public deserves to have transparency around operations to deliver clean water to the faucet. Cities around the nation and nearby are challenged with poor water conditions. We are fortunate to have good water in Johnson County; yet, we need to meet our own challenges with vigor, science, and courage.

Ullyses Wright

1. Climate change has significant implications, such as more frequent & dangerous heat waves, heavier rainstorms and flooding. WaterOne can put in place long range environmental plans that address climate control issues.

2. Work with State, and Federal agencies to mitigate degradation issues. One such group would is the US Army Corps of Engineers.

3. Work with farmers throughout the state promoting conservation practices.

Water District Board Member 7

Mark Parkins (incumbent)

The “Bottom Line” is keep applying pressure upon the federal government to address our concern. Commercial operations (dredging) in the River contribute to scouring of the river bottom. WaterOne is taking the necessary steps to address the issue. WaterOne plays an active role in affecting policy concerning management of the Missouri River. The ultimate controlling authority is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). The Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee (MRRIC) is a 70 member committee that has a major influence upon how the River is managed. MRRIC is the best avenue to communicate the needs of all parties that depend on the River. WaterOne is on the MRRIC and plays a key role in representing our interests and the needs of any authority that has an intake on the River.

In 2017, the USACE published a 127 page technical report that outlined 9 alternatives to address the degrading of the river bed between St. Joseph and Waverly, MO. All 9 alternatives involved the activities of Commercial Sand and Gravel Mining operations. It is simple to say that eliminating the dredging will improve conditions. However, modeling of operations of other kinds can also affect results. River Bank Stabilization and Navigation Sills and Dikes affect the River bottom and creating predictive modeling is difficult to accurately forecast conditions. Dredging contracts are between commercial operators and the USACE. When those contracts expire, it will be necessary to affect changes. WaterOne management has made efforts through MRRIC and public forums like Sierra Club and The League of Women Voters to make people aware of public meetings conducted by the USACE. These public meetings are lightly attended. If the public wants to be directly heard by controlling authorities, this is the means to get involved.

So what does this mean? It means that WaterOne has backup plans. If bottom degradation affects our intake on the Missouri River, we are prepared. WaterOne has a new horizontal collector well that is rated in excess of 5.5 million gallons per day. We have a separate 30 million gallon per day Collector Well, in addition to the intake on the Kansas River. Other back up plans exist and we will do what is best for all our customers.

Chris Stelzer

The Army Corps of Engineers report regarding this issue determined the primary cause of the Missouri River bed degradation was downstream commercial dredging activities, and accordingly the only cost effective solution was to reduce those activities. WaterOne does not have the jurisdiction to directly impact any downstream river usage. Therefore I believe the best option at this time is an advocacy and awareness campaign to mobilize public pressure in response to the business externality that will ultimately be paid for by the public through costly intake structure modifications.

Tomorrow we’ll publish the candidates’ responses to item two:

What statewide water policy issues are most important to WaterOne‘s operations? How can the organization play a key role in addressing those issues?