Q and A:
This self interview is a candid exploration of the new book by Leland and Crystal Payton on the history of modifications to the Osage River of eastern Kansas and west central Missouri. Many of the issues raised by its water resource development are applicable to the entire planet. Although the Osage River is a large and important tributary of the Missouri-Mississippi River system, its natural and cultural history is remarkably unknown and underappreciated.
This is a big, thick book. What’s it about?
It’s really two books. Most of the book is about the building of high dams that have eliminated the majority of the free-flowing Osage and the last spawning grounds of an ancient fish, a prehistoric relic, the paddlefish.
The cultural and natural history of the river somewhat, but not always, interfaces with the development of the river. It’s such a vivid and interesting background we couldn’t leave it out. The Osage tribe of Indians, for instance, was displaced from their homes on the upper Osage before the dams were built, but they affected the settlement of the region by European-Americans.
The Osages – you mean the oil-rich tribe from Oklahoma?
Yes. That’s their current image. Actually they were quite well-to-do after they sold their lands in Kansas, where they went after leaving Missouri. It was discovered that the reservation they bought in Oklahoma was underlain with a huge pool of oil. A century or two earlier they claimed a vast area exclusively for their hunting and deterred both the French and Spanish from getting much of a toehold in the central United States. Some authors believe this altered the history of North American settlement, making it possible for the United States to settle the Trans-Missouri wilderness.
Was there a bloody struggle between the American and Osages?
No. As ferocious as their warriors were, they were equally realistic when hoards of displaced eastern tribes like the Cherokee overran their hunting grounds. They treatied with the Americans and accepted a diminished territory, but persisted their legal and political efforts to be compensated and to maintain their tribal identity.
You’ve got a lot of historic photos of bridges, mills and views of the river before it was converted to reservoirs. How does this relate to the dams?
The builders of dams ignored as much as possible the economic, ecological and human costs of covering over the vast rich river bottoms. In this section we tried to show what was lost. The impulse to “improve” nature was present in American settlers, but their efforts didn’t impact the environment in the irreversible way the dams would.
So you say that there shouldn’t be any dams, anywhere, any time?
No, we don’t say that. There’s no anti-dam rhetoric in the book. This is specifically an autopsy of water resource development on a specific river. Few dam projects, however, divulge the negative aspects of that project. The Army Corps of Engineers is the acknowledged master at rigging their cost-benefit ratios and skirting laws that would shoot down their dam-building impulses. Some dams, like those for municipal water supply, do have justification. In mountainous terrain, hydropower projects are sometimes cost-effective. When a project is called “multipurpose” it is probably unsound. All six of the Corps dams and reservoirs on the Osage system are “multipurpose.”
So this is a version of Chinatown, the movie here Jack Nicholson uncovers a water resource scheme that involves murder, incest and corruption?
No murder or incest . . . However, in the case of Union Electric’s Bagnell Dam – two out of three of the individuals most responsible for the dam served time in federal prison, either directly or indirectly because of crimes connected with the dam that created Lake of the Ozarks. And in the case of the Corps of Engineers – their methods are quasi-legal and have barely sneaked through several judicial reviews. The longest chapter in the book tells the all-but-forgotten tale of a 1972 federal lawsuit filed by the Environmental Defense Fund to stop Truman Dam, their biggest and a hugely contentious project on the Osage. Leland Payton, co-author, was a plaintiff in that challenge.
So this is sour grapes because the lawsuit was unsuccessful?
Perhaps. But it would have been a lot more shrill indictment had this book been written immediately after the lawsuit was dismissed. We’re satisfied that the book doesn’t have either a vindictive or elegiac tone. The 10,000 or so people and their descendents have adjusted to their losses, as our photos of festivals and fishing show. So have we – sort of. We haven’t taken a poll, but we have met some folks who have had second thoughts about the promised benefits of Truman Reservoir. It’s a utopian solution to managing natural resources.
So there’s a conspiracy of silence? What problems are you talking about?
One of the principal issues about Truman Dam was the paddlefish. The spawning grounds of this ancient, valuable, giant, prehistoric fish were covered by Truman Reservoir. While adult paddlefish can live in reservoirs, they require riverine spawning grounds. The upper Osage was the most significant spawning environment in the entire Mississippi River system. Today, expensive artificial spawning has replaced self-sustaining populations. Throughout their range, sadly, the Missouri Department of Conservation, whose biologists once recognized the tragedy of destroying the upper Osage, doesn’t see anything wrong with the conversion of paddlefish to a domesticated animal. As with salmon, this has profound implications to their genetics and ultimate viability.
Is the Corps of Engineers a river killing monster?
The Corps got involved with the nation’s waterways around 1830. Until the 1930s, their mandate was improving rivers and harbors for shipping. During the Depression dam building became prime shovel-ready projects for FDR to alleviate unemployment. From that point, the Corps and cooperative politicians advocated for hundreds of multipurpose reservoirs which they justified on the basis of flood control, improving navigation, hydroelectricity and recreation, and even pollution abatement. Many of the old-time Corps officers were suspicious that such structures were not viable, but the various dam-building lobbies prevailed. There have been many honest Corps personnel, but it’s hard to resist the billions of dollars that Congress has appropriated for pork barrel public works projects. Truman Dam, for instance, had a tortured cost-benefit ration which the 1972 lawsuit revealed. Even after billions of dollars have been spent for Corps dams, there are still devastating floods. Flood damage costs continue to rise due in large part to Corps protection from small floods with reservoirs and levees, which encourages development in floodplains and then catastrophic loss when large floods occur.
So why did the federal judge let it be built?
By the time the lawsuit proceeded under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) 1969, more than $100 million had already been spent. In the end, the federal judiciary is reluctant to overrule Congress, as the recent Supreme Court ruling on health care revealed.
The book seems to have a personal tone. Why do you care about a muddy river?
Even though the Osage is not considered by most as a scenic river like the Current or Jacks Fork, it has a richer human history than the more esthetic, clear Ozark streams. Leland’s grandmother was born in Linn Creek, which is now under Lake of the Ozarks, but she and other relatives moved from Camden County to Morgan County well before Bagnell Dam was built. Leland grew up hearing stories about the Osage River and he fished and collected snakes along it and its tributaries. Washburn’s Point, a fishing resort on the Gravois arm of the lake, was a childhood hangout. The Boy Scout camp where he was a counselor was at the Lake too.
What message should the reader take away from Damming the Osage?
Once the concept of “multipurpose” was applied to water resource projects many, many dams were built with shaky economic justifications, ignoring ecological and cultural costs. They were promoted by special interests that benefited from their building. Opponents were disorganized and underfunded, and maligned for standing in the way of progress and prosperity. The excesses of the dam building era are widely recognized today. Few major dams are being built in the United States.
All dams lose their usefulness in a remarkably short period of time as sediment replaces storage capacity. And that sediment is not clean mud – but an anaerobic accumulation of dirt, agricultural chemicals, and everything else that has been carried by the river. Disposal if this hazardous waste presents many problems. Many dams in the East and the Northeast have been authorized for removal. Some have been taken out, but it can be more expensive to remove them than to build one. The Matilija Dam in Ventura County, California, presents this difficult problem to county planners and …. Who else? …. The Corps of Engineers.
The Osage River dams are still probably useful for another century. Eventually they too will silt up and become monuments to our ancestors’ hubris and short sightedness. Consider the sad fate of Lock and Dam #1, eight or nine river miles from where the Osage empties into the Missouri. It’s not only an impediment to fish migration, it’s a dangerous navigational hazard. Finished in the early 1900s to improve steamship navigation, it actually served to decrease the transport of barges and log rafts, which were the only profitable shipping on the entire river at that time. Will our descendants regard Truman Dam as a similar concrete symbol of the mismanagement of natural resources by an all powerful, ever-expanding central government?
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
. . .
From Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley