Lower Missouri River named among America’s Most Endangered Rivers of 2020

April 14, 2020

Climate change and poor flood management threaten public safety

April 14, 2020


Eileen Shader, American Rivers, 570-856-1128, eshader@americanrivers.org

Jim Karpowicz, Missouri Coalition for the Environment, 573-424-0077, jkarpowicz@moenviron.org 

David Stokes, Great Rivers Habitat Alliance, 314-276-6305, dstokes@grha.org

George Cunningham, Sierra Club Nebraska, 402-669-2236, cunningham.geo@gmail.com

Washington, D.C. – American Rivers today named the Lower Missouri River among America’s Most Endangered Rivers® of 2020, citing the threat that increasingly devastating floods pose to people, wildlife and industries across Great Plains states. American Rivers and its partners called on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and state and local officials, to prioritize projects that reduce flood risk and restore fish and wildlife habitat.

“The America’s Most Endangered Rivers report is a call to action,” said Eileen Shader with American Rivers. “Right now, we’re on a collision course with climate change and poor river management. Unless we embrace better solutions like giving the river room to flood safely, we’re going to see increasingly severe disasters.”

Today’s Missouri River is one of the most controlled waterways in our nation. Artificial channels, levees and dams vainly attempt to control flood damages. The result is a river with narrow pinch points 1,200 feet wide that give rising water no place to go. Consequently, major floods regularly overtop and breach the levee system. During the March 2019 flood, for example, 850 miles of levees in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska were damaged. Repair costs will exceed $1 billion, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The situation will grow increasingly dire as the impacts of climate change take hold. A 2012 Bureau of Reclamation report predicted a 10 percent increase in runoff in the Lower Missouri River.

Addressing the issues associated with outdated floodplain management on the Lower Missouri River requires a major shift in how state and the federal governments manage this important resource. American Rivers called on state and local governments to commit to nature-based solutions, including levee setbacks and floodplain restoration. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must also identify repetitively damaged levees and plan projects that give the river room to flood. Affected communities — such as farmers, low-income communities and communities of color — must be included in decision-making processes to ensure that plans effectively address their needs.

“Despite the tremendous floods of 2019 and other, recent years, floodplain development continues unabated along the Lower Missouri River, especially in the St. Louis-region. Misguided projects such as Bangert Island in St. Charles, Mo, and the Maryland Park Lake District in Maryland Heights, Mo, are still being proposed and supported by local governments who care only for the dream of more tax dollars and don’t care at all who or what they harm by these devastating floodplain developments.” – David Stokes, Great Rivers Habitat Alliance.

“If the large floods events over the last quarter century have taught us anything, it is the over-engineered lower Missouri River needs more room to store water.  The confined channel that has disconnected the river from parts of its floodplain must be widen out to provide flood risk reduction, protection of more productive and less flood prone farmland in the floodplain, as well as the necessary ecological resilience for native species residing in the river system,” said George Cunningham, Sierra Club Nebraska.

“Clearly the Lower Missouri River is in crisis. The levees damaged by the flood of 2019 largely remain unrepaired as the river once again begins to rise. With floods increasing, business as usual is not an option, we need to totally rethink out flood control strategies,” said Jim Karpowicz, Missouri Coalition for the Environment.

“We need to stay safe and we want to enjoy all of the benefits that healthy rivers give our communities. We need our decision-makers to prioritize nature-based solutions to protect vulnerable communities from flooding and deliver a wide range of benefits, including improved water quality, fish and wildlife habitat, and recreation, fishing and hunting opportunities,” said Shader.

Flowing for 2,300 miles from southern Montana, to St. Louis, Missouri, the Missouri River is America’s longest waterway. The Indigenous people who lived, and continue to live next to the river view the Missouri River as the “center of life” for the Great Plains, the river also played a critical role in Lewis and Clark’s famous 1804-1806 expedition. Once up to 10,000 feet wide in some sections, the Missouri historically experienced floods that spread across vast floodplains — the lands directly adjacent to the river.

The annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers report is a list of rivers at a crossroads, where key decisions in the coming months will determine the rivers’ fates. Over the years, the report has helped spur many successes, including the removal of outdated dams, the protection of rivers with Wild and Scenic designations, and the prevention of harmful development and pollution.

Other rivers in the region listed as most endangered in past years include the Mississippi River (2018, 2019, 2020), Middle Fork Vermilion River (2018), Kinnickinic River (2018), St. Louis River (2015), and the Niobrara River (2013).


#1 Upper Mississippi River (Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota, Wisconsin)

Threat:  Climate change, poor flood management

#2 Lower Missouri River (Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas)

Threat:  Climate change, poor flood management

#3 Big Sunflower River (Mississippi)

Threat:  Yazoo pumps project

#4: Puyallup River (Washington)

Threat:  Electron Dam

#5: South Fork Salmon River (Idaho)

Threat:  Gold mine

#6: Menominee River (Michigan, Wisconsin)

Threat:  Open pit sulfide mining

#7: Rapid Creek (South Dakota)

Threat:  Gold mining

#8: Okefenokee Swamp (Georgia, Florida)

Threat:  Titanium mining

#9: Ocklawaha River (Florida)

Threat:  Rodman Dam

#10: Lower Youghiogheny River (Pennsylvania)

Threat:  Natural gas development

River of the Year: Delaware River (Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Maryland)

Honored as a national success story for restoration and a model for equitable and innovative clean water solutions.


American Rivers believes every community in our country should have clean water and a healthy river. Since 1973, we have been protecting wild rivers, restoring damaged rivers and conserving clean water for people and nature. With headquarters in Washington, D.C., and offices across the country, we are the most effective river conservation organization in the United States, delivering solutions that will last for generations to come. Find your connections at AmericanRivers.org.