Why an Mva?

» Congress has authorized a post-war expenditure of 400 million dollars to begin the Missouri River plan. Here is a new frontier for returning veterans, with five times the potential of the TVA.



ONE must have lived on the Great Plains during the drought years to appreciate fully what is going to happen, after the war, to the Missouri River. From the outside looking in, the drought was Okies migrating to California, Presidential conferences, farm relief. From the inside, it was day on day of dry, crackling heat; dust storms that turned the sun to a pallid disk and filled the air with choking clouds of flying soil; it was fired cornstalks and dead cattle and ruined farmers; bankruptcies and forced sales, despair and angry sun and powdery fields.

That drought is long over. A miracle of coincidence brought back the rains just when the nation’s need for food was greatest. But nobody west of the Missouri has quite forgotten the thirties, when the Great Plains languished for want of water. The memory is overlaid with a fresher one of swirling yellow floods pouring down the valley in 1943 and 1944, washing out railroad tracks and bridges, inundating airports, uprooting crops, and halt ing work in war plants.

Flood and drought, glut and scarcity: the two historic themes of the trans-Missouri West intertwined last December when Congress adopted a joint plan of the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Engineers to curb the river and its tributaries, and to bend the energies of these waters to the service of the people.

It is difficult to comprehend the breadth and sweep of this Missouri River plan. In area the basin is ten times the size of New York State and could contain one hundred Tennessee River watersheds. It is a vast tilted plain, shelving down from the continental divide to a narrow outlet among the wooded hills of eastern Missouri.

Sixteen million people dwell in its cities, its prairie towns, its level wheat lands, rugged range, and mountain valleys. Every one of these people will be affected in some degree by the Missouri River plan — whether through the doubling of irrigated acreage in Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas, and Nebraska, or the electrification of farms, or the maintenance of a water highway for heavy freight, or the formation of blue inland lakes, or the restraint of torrents which for too many years have eaten away whole farms and carried fortunes in topsoil into the Gulf.

Complete control of the Missouri and all its tributaries is the objective. For years men have been grappling with one or another of the watershed problems. Fort Peck Dam, forming a lake two-thirds the size of that behind Boulder Dam on the Colorado, was built during the thirties to serve navigation and flood control; the Platte, Yellowstone, Big Horn, Milk, and other tributaries have been exploited for irrigation; hydroelectric power is generated in Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado. All this will now be knit together with new projects to form a comprehensive system of river regulation.

One hundred and two dams, big and little, will be built. A network of canals will cut up oversized demesnes into small irrigated farmsteads. A hightension grid of transmission lines, linking power stations across the plains, will distribute electricity in Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. Engineers will guide and control every drop of water from the time it trickles off a mountainside near Yellowstone National Park until it flows into the Mississippi at St. Louis.

Hydrographic engineering is a little like playing God. That must be why schemes of water-resource development excite the imagination, particularly of people who live in a region which rarely sees enough water in the right place at the right time.

Engineers look at a mountain site in the Washakie National Forest, eighty miles west of Thermopolis, Wyoming, and say: “Here we shall build Du Noir reservoir, dedicating its impounded waters to the irrigation of lands along the Wind River below.” Following this stream south and east, and then turning north into the Big Horn, they say: “Here we shall build a lake fifteen miles long, to be called Boysen reservoir, which will desilt the stream, store up irrigation supplies, and generate power.”

On the Montana-Wyoming border, they decree two more reservoirs, Kane and Yellowtail, to form a double lake fifty-five miles long. The Big Horn flows into the Yellowstone, and the Yellowstone, winding north and east to the North Dakota line, into the Missouri. Near Garrison, North Dakota, the engineers say: “Here we shall transform the Missouri into a lake almost as large as Fort Peck.” In South Dakota they specify an even larger lake, backing up water for two hundred miles, from Pierre, South Dakota, almost to Bismarck, North Dakota; and they show how water can be pumped from this Oahe reservoir to irrigate 750,000 acres on the west slope of the James River valley to the east.

Below Oahe they plan three more dams, to generate power and provide day-to-day regulation of the navigation channel downstream. At Sioux City the channel will begin, a scientifically controlled waterway on which Diesel-driven barges may ply, carrying wheat, coal, steel, and lumber between Omaha, Sioux City, St. Joseph, Kansas City, and port towns along the great inland waterways system of the Mississippi, Ohio, Great Lakes, Tennessee.

The Flood Control Act passed by Congress last December included authorization for post-war expenditure of 400 million dollars to carry out the initial phases of this Missouri River plan, which it is estimated will cost about a billion dollars more — twice the investment to date in the Tennessee Valley Authority. Behind the authorization lay a legislative swap between two Federal bureaus and two competing economic interests.

Since 1938 the Bureau of Reclamation had been studying the upper reaches of the basin — Wyoming, Montana, the Dakotas, and Nebraska — for the purpose of blueprinting a comprehensive irrigation prospectus. The Corps of Engineers in the War Department had been improving the river below Sioux City for navigation, and studying the flood-control needs of the lower river, particularly at Kansas City and St. Louis. The destructive floods of 1943 and 1944, which caused calculable damage of at least 100 million dollars, speeded up the plans of both bureaus.

Under pressure of strong public demand that the river be brought to book, the Army Engineers laid before Congress a scheme for five great dams on the main stem in the Dakotas, which with tributary reservoirs and levees would provide sufficient storage capacity to hold any flood of record. As a corollary benefit, their plan provided water supplies for a nine-foot, as compared with the previously authorized six-foot, navigation channel. Downstream people, interested both in flood control and in water transport, applauded.

Partial to its own plan, the Bureau of Reclamation and its supporting lobby of irrigation interests viewed the Army scheme with something less than enthusiasm. When the yellow waters come tumbling down in March and June, the Missouri seems too big for anybody’s good; but from July to October there is often not enough water. If impounded flood waters were earmarked for a nine-foot barge channel during dry season, would enough be left to supply thirsty acres in the same period? This question the irrigators answered to their own satisfaction in the negative, and their Senators proceeded to block Congressional approval of the War Department plan.

A series of conferences among Engineers and Senators at length produced a joint plan, sanctioned by both bureaus and both lobbies. The conflict over water use disappeared — temporarily, at least — under a proviso granting nominal priority to irrigation. The Army Engineers gave up some of their dams; the Reclamationists modified some of theirs. It was agreed that, in general, the Reclamation Bureau should manage the upper river, centering attention upon irrigation and power, and that the Army Engineers should rule the lower river, with responsibility for flood control and navigation. The joint plan slid through Congress on greased ways.


IT MAY take up to twenty years to realize this sweeping scheme of river development, but there can be little doubt that it will be realized. The conservation of water resources has become a recognized function of Federal authority, and the Missouri basin plan is solidly grounded on the economic needs of the region.

There had been droughts west of the Missouri prior to the thirties. John Wesley Powell, Director of the Geological Survey, had warned the inrushing settlers as early as 1880 that the Great Plains could not be farmed by a humid-climate formula. Repeated agrarian disasters forced repeated migrations of ruined settlers and bred periodic flowerings of political radicalism. But the catastrophe of the thirties, compounded by a national and a world depression, struck home with greater force.

A vanished frontier now left no avenue of escape. A settled and mature society, with investments to amortize, governments and schools to support, business interests to sustain, recognized that the new frontier would have to be created at home.

When the rains returned and farm prices recovered, the West reverted to conservatism in politics. But the legacy of the drought was a conviction, shared by the most conservative, that bold measures must be taken to stabilize the region’s economy. With no replenishing stream of immigration flowing in from the East, the basin could no longer afford the recurrent migrations to the West, which now meant a loss of population. Ways must be found both to anchor people to the land and to diversify an all too agricultural economy.

West of the 97th meridian, which intersects the Missouri River near Yankton, South Dakota, rainfall averages less than 25 inches a year — the minimum figure for crop production — and often drops far below that minimum. In the mixed farming regions close to the river, drought means unstable land tenure, mining of the soil, and large relief rolls; in the wheat belt, it means steadily expanding farm units and a gambler’s agriculture which counts as good luck four paying crops in ten; in the range country, it means periodic liquidation of herds and flocks which cannot be fed through the winter of a bad year.

Uncertain weather reflects itself in unstable income and a vicious circle of soil exploitation. South Dakota, which reported a cash farm income of 400 million dollars in 1944, a wet year, sank to the poverty level of less than 60 million dollars in 1932, a dry year. While national farm land values were declining 38 per cent during the thirties, those in Nebraska declined 60 per cent and in South Dakota 68 per cent. Every such period of drought sets up pressures to expand acreage under cultivation, as farmers endeavor to offset low yields.

While mechanization served to increase the average size of the American farm from 148 acres to 175 during the twenty years prior to 1940, the size of units in the Missouri basin expanded much faster, and now ranges from 308 acres in Kansas to 1866 in Wyoming. There are 12 acres of crop land per farm person in the nation; 61 acres per person in the basin states.

Nothing can be done to change the Great Plains climate, but full conservation of its wasted winter snows and spring rains can establish, as the Bureau of Reclamation phrases it, “islands of safety.” These oases of irrigated land would support a dense farm population. Their assured production of alfalfa and hay would supply winter feed for livestock in dry years as well as in wet ones. By a stimulus to dairying and poultry raising they would decrease the basin’s reliance upon grain and permit the retirement of marginal land to grass. Their production of high-value specialty crops (beets, potatoes, fruits, vegetables) would bring the region’s cash income from that type of produce for which demand may be expected to rise with the national standard of living.

The Bureau of Reclamation says average dry land crop yields of $6 an acre can be increased to $36 an acre by this peaceful revolution in agriculture; that more than four million acres of Missouri basin land can be brought under economically feasible irrigation to supplement the four million already so farmed. These estimates point to an increase in farm income of 130 million dollars a year, and a stabilized agriculture which can support 200,000 more people on the land and 400,000 more in the towns and cities which feed on the land.


IRRIGATION as such has frequently been attacked by those who would leave economic development entirely to “natural” forces, including the weather. Some of its effects must indeed face critical examination. For example, is the national welfare served by beet-sugar production under forced draft when cane produces sugar more cheaply elsewhere? But beets are not the only crop grown under irrigation, and it is difficult to sustain a case against the principle of sound water conservation itself.

Recent studies of farm productivity suggest that post-war America will need the output of its best acres, even though the total cultivated acreage may have to be reduced. Irrigation provides a means of getting rich soils into production and taking out the land that never should have been plowed.

The strongest argument for reclamation is a social one. The Missouri basin is settled, and cannot be unsettled. To relieve its distress during the thirties, government agencies spent more than one billion dollars. Thousands of servicemen, polls show, want to come back to farms of their own. Neither the nation nor the basin can lose by helping these people develop the land to the limit of its fertility.

If agriculture, supplemented by mining and petroleum production, must remain the base of the region’s economy, the location of war industries there has whetted the public appetite for a parallel development of manufacturing and commerce. Before the war the nine states of the basin, with 9.8 per cent of the nation’s population, had only 4.6 per cent of the nation’s manufacturing employees.

The development of irrigation would greatly stimulate processing of food products — the canning, refrigeration, dehydration, and packing industries, and the manufacture of butter and cheese. On the basis of the experience of other reclamation projects, the basin could expect ultimately more than 400 million dollars a year in new wholesale markets, some of which might be supplied by local manufactures, and all of which would bring business to the wholesaling centers.

The essentials of industrial development are cheap power and cheap transportation. The example of the Tennessee Valley Authority is proving a powerful educator in both respects. In most of the Missouri basin states, industrial and commercial power rates are 50 per cent above the national average. TVA rates in the region would represent a saving to consumers of 100 million dollars a year.

Turbines turned by water on the Missouri system would not only light Great Plains farms but encourage the growth of food-processing plants and small industry. Despite the disappearance of privately owned electric utilities from the Tennessee valley, business enterprise as a whole has made greater progress in that region than in the nation at large during the last ten years.

As a lever for lower transportation costs, the Missouri valley, like the Tennessee, looks to barge navigation. Barges can carry coal from central Illinois to Omaha at $1.17 a ton less than the rail rate, and steel from Chicago at a saving of 30 cents a hundredweight; Kansas and Nebraska farmers can receive four to eight cents a bushel more for grain shipped by barge than for grain shipped by rail. Oil, iron, sugar, lumber, and machinery are expected to move by water, at savings to shippers estimated at from 12 million to 18 million dollars a year. On imports the savings would be reflected in greater opportunities for manufacturing; on exports, in higher farm income. The Missouri basin badly needs both.


IF POWER can be developed, the land irrigated, floods controlled, and the channel made navigable by the Reclamation Bureau and the Corps of Engineers under the joint plan, then why an MVA? Why did the President, in approving the joint plan, call it “only a beginning . . . a basic engineering plan to be developed and administered by a Missouri Valley Authority”? Why did Senator Murray of Montana, author of legislation to establish an MVA, hold up Congressional action until he had obtained pledges of early consideration for his broader scheme?

The technical achievements of TVA have tended to obscure its achievements in the realm of government. As Chairman David Lilienthal has said, TVA “is not dams or power or land rehabilitation . . . but essentially a way of getting things done. The real issue in the proposed MVA is the relation between the people in their everyday life in the Missouri valley, and the Federal government in Washington.”

Visitors to the Tennessee valley have been astonished not only by the grandeur of the Norris, Cherokee, Douglas, and other dams, but by the spirit of local possessiveness that surrounds the Authority and its operations. Here is no remote Federal bureau doing things for the valley, but an essentially autonomous agency of and in the valley, rooted there, responsive to its needs and aspirations, fusing a variety of initiatives into a social drive peculiarly expressive of the region itself.

TVA has bridged the gulf between the ordinary citizen and the Federal authority. Deriving its power from Congress, functioning as an arm of the Executive, it owes its strength to neither of these but to the intimate relationship it has woven with the people, their local institutions, their governments, their economic life.

Senator McKellar collided with this new principle of government when he tried, in the time-honored way, to establish political suzerainty over TVA. The people of the valley rose up in their wrath to smite him. More than the non-political guarantee which had been written into the TVA act was vindicated; the test of strength demonstrated both the Authority’s freedom from Washington interference and its reliance upon popular support and acceptance at home. A North Dakota editor, studying TVA for lessons which might be adapted to the Missouri basin, asked twenty-one editors of the region: “In your judgment, would the people of the valley support the TVA now if they were to vote on the subject?” All the editors replied, “Yes.”

Early fears that a regional agency might overshadow and encroach upon the states have vanished. In an area where the states’ rights doctrine blooms brightest, the seven governors agree, in the words of Prentice Cooper of Tennessee, that “the rights of this state and its citizens, far from having been restricted or violated, have been enlarged through enriched opportunities.” Governor Arnall of Georgia says: “The only complaint I have regarding TVA is that its influence has not permeated this state further.”

The tax problem created by large holdings of public property has been satisfactorily adjusted; last year the Authority paid to states and counties, in lieu of taxes, two million dollars, a sum greater than the ad valorem taxes formerly assessed on TVA property.

Instead of competing with the states and counties, the Authority has lured them into helping with its work, and so has strengthened and dignified them. Scores of contracts embody working relations with state extension services, agricultural colleges, public schools, and other local agencies in carrying out cooperative programs of public health, demonstration farms, library service, recreation, research. Federal agencies have likewise been drawn into active cooperation, while at the same time the Authority has adjusted its own activities to avoid overlapping. TVA and the Department of Agriculture work together on soil conservation: the Bureau of Mines conducts TVA’s researches in ceramic clay; the Corps of Engineers operates the navigation locks in TVA dams.

Basic to the valley authority idea, then, is the conception of a coordinating agency which not only performs certain functions related to the control of the river, but focuses the efforts of many agencies and many interests in the development of all regional resources and opportunities. TVA early abandoned any attempt to impose from above a rigid plan for the social and economic life of the valley. Instead it undertook to inspire the people themselves, to release their energies and develop self-help. The result is a regional entity with a life and a spirit of its own, which sees the valley at close range, understands it, and approaches its problems as parts of an interconnected whole.

The development of river transport inevitably gives such an authority leadership in the South’s fight for lower freight rates; the generation of cheap power involves a search for industrial opportunities that will provide jobs and income for the people. The authority, serving as a switchboard through which pass the energies of towns, counties, states, and Federal agencies, can accomplish more than the sum of the individual agencies. The proof is clear in the economic statistics of the Tennessee valley, which show, in every particular, greater gains than national averages during the ten years of TVA’s existence.

Nowhere is the integrating function of the valley authority more significant than in the performance of its primary task: the conservation and maximum use of water resources. A watershed may contain many diverse economic and social elements, but the river itself, with its tributaries, is a single whole. To divide it into two sovereignties, as the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Engineers propose with respect to the Missouri, is asking for trouble.

Irrigators upstream and navigators downstream have signed an uneasy truce along the Missouri, but latent conflicts still lurk just beneath the surface. The Bureau of Reclamation, for example, has its heart set on opening a new irrigation frontier in the Souris basin of North Dakota, which lies outside the Missouri watershed. Lower-river interests bitterly oppose transferring any Missouri River water over the divide. Which shall prevail? Neither the states nor Federal agencies with competitive interests can settle this conflict, and the many other day-to-day differences that are sure to arise, so efficiently as can a regional authority, equally representative of and responsible to all the interests of the valley.

Congress has embarked on the task of taming the Missouri and has specified that the river shall be developed and controlled as a whole. Unless the great lesson of TVA is to be thrown to the winds, the next logical step is to match technical integration in the construction of dams and powerhouses with the unifying force of a regional authority. An agency “clothed with the power of government but possessed of the flexibility and initiative of a private enterprise”; expressive of the national interest, but serving it in a fresh and vital way; applying centralized power through decentralized administration — this is the best possible armor with which the people of the Great Plains can confront the next drought.