Lower Missouri River named among America’s Most Endangered Rivers

April 13, 2021

Poor flood management threatens public safety

Eileen Shader, American Rivers, 570-856-1128, eshader@americanrivers.org
Paul Lepisto, Izaak Walton League of America, 605-224-1770, plepisto@iwla.org
George Cunningham, Sierra Club Nebraska, 402-669-2236, cunningham.geo@gmail.com
Caroline Pufalt, Missouri River Network, Sierra Club, 314-721-7207, carolinepufalt@gmail.com
Rachel Bartels, Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper, 314-884-1473, rachel@mowaterkeeper.org

Washington, D.C. – American Rivers today named the lower Missouri River among America’s Most Endangered Rivers® of 2021, citing the serious threat that poor flood management poses to public safety. American Rivers and its partners called on states and local governments to implement multi-benefit projects that reduce flood risk and restore lost habitat in coordination with impacted communities.

“The America’s Most Endangered Rivers report is a call to action to save rivers facing urgent decisions,” said Eileen Shader with American Rivers. “We’re sounding the alarm because flooding is getting worse and communities are more at risk than ever. We know that many levees are too close to the river and that moving levees back will give the river room to flood safely and restore valuable floodplain habitat. It’s time for the Army Corps, lower Missouri River states, willing landowners and all those who care about the Missouri River to work together to improve public safety and restore the Missouri River.”

Communities along the Lower Missouri are facing increasing flooding with climate change, yet river managers continue to rely on an antiquated flood control system that actually increases flood risk. In recent years, more than 850 miles of levees in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska have been damaged during floods. Meanwhile, federal, state and community officials continue to rebuild existing levee systems to maintain and even intensify floodplain development– putting more people and taxpayer dollars at risk.

“The Missouri River, the people that depend on it, and the American taxpayer, demand management practices that protect the river’s health and its fish and wildlife,” said Paul Lepisto of the Izaak Walton League of America. He continued, “we must implement new approaches, give the river more room, and reconnect portions of the Missouri back to its historic floodplain.”

The river and its communities need more effective flood management. States and local governments located in areas where catastrophic flooding has occurred must commit to non-structural and nature-based solutions, including setting back levees to give the river room, preventing development in the Missouri River floodplain that contributes to rising flood waters and increased flood risk, and funding relocation and flood mitigation projects for communities already located in flood-prone areas.

“When we talk about flooding, the focus is often on property damage and economic impact, but a flooding event is also an environmental and public health hazard,” said Rachel Bartels,

Director at Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper. “Here in Missouri, we have coal ash, radioactive waste, abandoned lead mines and a variety of other toxic accidents waiting to happen. When an area floods, this chemical soup becomes part of our water system, potentially impairing your drinking water or your favorite fishing stream.”

The Missouri is America’s longest river, flowing more than 2,300 miles, with a watershed encompassing one-sixth of the United States. Once a wide, meandering, dynamic river that spread out over its ecologically rich floodplains, today’s Missouri River has been constricted to meet conflicting water resource demands, including flood control, navigation, irrigation, hydropower, water supply, water quality, recreation and fish and wildlife habitat. The lower Missouri River from Sioux City to St. Louis is artificially confined by hundreds of miles of levees that have destroyed the dynamic features of the river, including side channels, chutes, shallow and slack water areas, sandbars and islands. This loss of diverse habitat has resulted in the federal listings of multiple species.

“Folks along the Missouri River know floods are increasing, but sometimes it’s hard to break from failed, outdated so called “solutions.” Citizens and taxpayers need leadership to advance the changes we have long known are needed,” said Caroline Pufalt with Missouri River Network, Sierra Club. “The Missouri River needs room to expand and connect with its historical floodplain. By doing that in some places, we can help protect other places where towns and farms can more safely enjoy proximity 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.

The lower Missouri River was previously listed in 2020 as well. Other rivers in the region listed as most endangered in recent years include the Upper Mississippi River (2019 & 2020), Tar Creek (2021), and Buffalo National River (2017 & 2019).


#1: Snake River (ID, WA, OR)
Threat: Four federal dams on the lower Snake River

#2: Lower Missouri River (MO, IA, NE, KS)
Threat: Outdated river management

#3: Boundary Waters (MN)
Threat: Sulfide-ore copper mining

#4: South River (GA)
Threat: Pollution due to lax enforcement

#5: Pecos River (NM)
Threat: Pollution from proposed hardrock mining

#6: Tar Creek (OK)
Threat: Pollution from Tar Creek Superfund Site

#7: McCloud River (CA)
Threat: Raising of Shasta Dam

#8: Ipswich River (MA)
Threat: Excessive water withdrawals

#9: Raccoon River (IA)
Threat: Pollution from industrial agriculture and factory farming

#10: Turkey Creek (MS)
Threat: Two major developments