Controversy and science at the meeting of great rivers

Richard E. Sparks

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The confluence of the Illinois, Missouri, and Mississippi rivers near St. Louis is a National Scenic Byway and a place where commerce and conservation clashed over the future of the rivers and where science improved the understanding and management of the rivers. In the 1970s, commercial navigation interests wanted new locks constructed that would accommodate larger barge tows. Conservationists argued that the increased traffic would disturb fish and wildlife and damage their habitats. Congress reached historic compromises in 1978 and in 1986 that approved construction of one new dam and two locks at Alton, Illinois on the Mississippi River and established a long-term monitoring program that tracks trends in fish and wildlife populations and their habitats on the entire Upper Mississippi River, from Minnesota downstream to Illinois and Missouri. The compromises also included a habitat rehabilitation and enhancement program. Together, the habitat rehabilitation and the monitoring programs have improved the understanding and management of not only the Mississippi and Illinois rivers (the latter is included in these programs), but of other large floodplain-rivers around the world. A separate Long Term Ecological Research program on the two rivers, funded by the National Science Foundation from 1981 to 1987, contributed to an understanding of the role of disturbances (e.g., floods) in maintaining species diversity and natural processes, summarized in a much-cited paper, The Floodpulse Concept in River-Floodplain Systems (Junk, Bayley and Sparks, 1989, Canadian Special Publication of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 106). The confluence area was hard hit in the Great Midwestern Flood of 1993, but one positive outcome was a report commissioned by the Clinton administration: Sharing the Challenge: Floodplain Management into the 21st Century ( The report reaffirmed findings and recommendations emerging from the on-going monitoring and habitat rehabilitation projects: that improvement and recovery of the environmental and recreational values of rivers and their floodplains is congruent with reduction of future flood damages to human infrastructure. The confluence area has played a historic role in the development of river science and management.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)7--19
JournalElsah History
Issue number109-110
StatePublished - 2016


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