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Shaping the Future of the Missouri River KC's Defining Feature Draws Renewed Attention

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Above image credit: An aerial photo of the Missouri River in downtown Kansas City on. Jan. 12, 2017. (File)
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4 minute read

The future vitality of the Missouri River depends on striking a careful balance of uses that don’t always flow in harmony.

Kansas City’s defining geographic feature serves our competing needs for recreation, navigation, economic development and clean water, noted experts during a panel discussion last week.

“The river is often conceptualized in economic terms, but it’s also essential to public health,” said environmental historian Amahia Mallea, an associate professor of history at Drake University. “We’ve managed the river since the early 20th century largely for the purpose of economic growth, or wealth as I like to think of it, while all along the river has been essential for the public health of the region.”

Jon Stephens, president and CEO of the Port Authority of Kansas City (Port KC), said the city turned its back on the river for many years, to the detriment of both health and wealth. “One of my goals in this position is to bring both back,” he said.

As examples, Stephens said the Port Authority had advocated for trails along the river and had remediated 50 acres for development at the foot of Main Street, where 19th century river boat captains caught sight of the land that would give birth to Kansas City. 

“I’m sitting in a building on Berkley Riverfront Park,” Stephens said. “Two years ago we opened 410 units of apartments that are above me in this building. It is believed to be the first residential development on the river where you can actually walk right down to the river, free of all rail and other obstructions, in 110 years in Kansas City. That’s a catalyst. Now we have a streetcar on its way to the riverfront.”

The panel discussion, held on Oct. 28, was part of a three-day remote event sponsored by the Linda Hall Library. The other panel members were Terry Leeds, director of Kansas City Water Services, and Chance Bitner, chief of the hydrology and hydraulics section of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Kansas City District.

“There are eight designated purposes for the Missouri River, and trying to balance those is quite a task,” Leeds said.

To that end, Leeds said the water department is actively engaged in the Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee (MRRIC), a coalition of non-governmental interests in the river basin chartered to represent the broad range of commercial, industrial, agricultural and recreational interests throughout the basin.

Bitner said the Army Corps of Engineers also takes a balanced approach to river management. “We have over $22 billion of investment in some of the major federal levees here in Kansas City. Right now we’re in the process of $500 million worth of system improvements along the Kansas River primarily.”

The work of the Army Corps of Engineers also involves recreation, irrigation, fish and wildlife, and water emissions from dams, Bitner said.

“We’re preparing for the future,” Bitner said. “A couple of things we’re worried about are increased frequency of extreme events, both droughts and floods.”

Leeds said the water department also has its eye on climate change. “For the Kansas City area, it looks like we’ll have more rain, but we’ll have some longer periods of dryness in between. I think this year has been a good example of that. But that river keeps rolling.”

Mallea noted that Kansas City is where it is because of the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas (also known as Kaw) rivers.

“The Kansas Cities were in love with their river in the late 19th and early 20th century,” she said. “The heart of the city sat at the confluence, and they passionately believed and talked about how they were a river city.”

Mallea said that the mid-20th century, a time period that included the devastating 1951 flood, saw Kansas Citians fall out of love with their river.

“But though it left their cultural imagination, it never stopped being essential,” Mallea said. “And with the environmental movement and the 1993 flood, the river crept back into people’s imaginations and they began to recognize that they are indeed a river city. We’re seeing an uptick in interest in the kinds of things Jon (Stephens of Port KC) is working on, on being able to actually access the river.”

Stephens said over the summer, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of daily visitors to Berkley Riverfront Park shot up by 400%.

“KC Parks and Rec owns hundreds and hundreds of acres to the east of the bend,” Stephens said. “All we have to do is look at partnerships to connect levees and networks. Maybe we do some raised walkways, so when there are mild floods people can just walk over this flooded green space. I think there are lots of ways we can do that with existing infrastructure and tie it together.”

Stephens said he expects to see increased barge traffic on the Missouri River in coming years.

“The Missouri River, particularly the lower Missouri, was viewed for many years as a seasonal navigation river,” he said. “If we’re going to continue to grow goods and services on the river from the Gulf of Mexico, it has to be viewed as much more of a year-round navigation river.”  

Stephens noted the Kansas City area is adding 15 million square feet of distribution centers this year.

“COVID has accelerated the growth of e-commerce and the style of distribution we see coming, from a just-in-time model to a just-in-case model,” Stephens said. “That fundamentally is changing how goods arrive and leave in communities like ours. And we don’t just serve this metro area, we’re a point of distribution for the entire Midwest.”

Stephens said the number of shipping containers passing through Kansas City is expected to grow from 742,000 last year to 1.85 million by 2030. “Expanding highway capacity and rail capacity to absorb that much growth is just not the smart way to look at our infrastructure,” he said. “We’ve got to be more thoughtful about goods that can move over days, vs. hours.”

Transporting goods by river barges also is more energy efficient and better for the environment than truck transport, Stephens added.

Mallea, however, said Kansas City and other cities have not realized all the economic benefits that were supposed to come from making the river more navigable.

“So in thinking about how we balance these issues, navigation doesn’t deserve so much weight,” Mallea said. “Navigation and the wealth that might bring to the region has really been a promise that Kansas City has been chasing across the 20th century. So there is this question about the role of navigation and whether this will become more important in the future.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation recently awarded the Port Authority a nearly $10 million grant to help finance the redevelopment of a 415-acre site along the Missouri River that had served as a landfill for the AK Steel Corp. Port KC wants to develop the site, located in the Blue River Industrial Corridor east of Interstate 435, into a multimodal freight transfer facility known as the Missouri River Terminal.

Stephens said he wants the development to be done in a way that balances important needs, including green space and bringing back jobs to surrounding neighborhoods.

“We have a serious challenge there, and there are no easy answers,” Stephens said. But he said Port KC, in cooperation with stakeholders such as Kansas City Water Services and the Army Corps of Engineers, “are committed to trying to do it to the best of our abilities.”

Flatland contributor Julius A. Karash is a Kansas City-based writer.

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