Managing the Missouri: Federal water projects, the landscape, and the law

Howe, Maria
Major Professor
Pamela Riney-Kehrberg
Julie Courtwright
Committee Member
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During the twentieth century, the U.S. federal government became increasingly involved in managing the nation’s natural resources. Building off the legacy of internal improvements and public lands disposal in the nineteenth century, the Progressive Era marked a turning point with a national movement coalescing based on conservation, efficiency, and expertise. Over the following decades, the federal government’s intervention became highly organized, systemic, and technical. This dissertation assesses one aspect of this trend – federal water management. Literature on the subject has focused disproportionately on the arid West. This study, which looks at the Missouri River, helps pull the discourse toward a broader historiography.

Specifically, this dissertation presents research on four federal water management schemes across the watershed, emphasizing the process of managing the Missouri at the grassroots level. Covering the geographical extent of the watershed, the varying physical regions, and the century, this analysis looks at: 1) an irrigation project authorized in 1906 on the Sun River, a tributary in Montana; 2) a drainage project authorized under the 1936 Flood Control Act on the Little Sioux River, a tributary in Iowa; 3) a failed campaign at mid-century to create a “valley authority” modeled off the Tennessee Valley Authority; and 4) a project authorized in 2000 on the Monarch Levee, located on the Missouri’s mainstem near St. Louis.

Ultimately, this perspective reveals that transforming water systems to accommodate more intensive use involved imagining new communities that would support and pay for the project. Although federal agencies supplied critical infrastructure support, this task was accomplished primarily at the grassroots level. The process was long, not always democratic, and frequently contested in some way, whether in debates over how to allocate the costs locally, or how to prioritize competing uses. A key point of debate was how to draw boundaries – who would be included, who would be excluded. The Missouri’s resilience has repeatedly checked ideas about “management.” Yet due to the tremendous commitments involved, residents often became deeply connected to the river in unexpected ways, regardless of established political boundaries. Ultimately, these connections created a large degree of power at the local level.