Back in 2019, the Missouri River experienced disastrous flooding. According to a report by the Nature Conservancy, Atchison and Holt counties endured over two hundred days of flooding. More than a hundred miles of road were destroyed, and more than a hundred homes were flooded there. Twenty-five million dollars were lost in agricultural revenue in Atchison County alone. Downriver, Missouri residents affected by the floods received more than $93 million for their losses, most from federal emergency funds.
This summer, Kansas City could face the opposite problem. The Missouri river starts in Montana, and much of the water that flows from the upper section comes from snowfall in the high west. There, the winter was dry. “Less snowpack equals less melt that will ultimately make its way into the river,” says Cody Gazaway, who works for KC Water.
For the last two years, drought has plagued the upper Missouri, an area including Montana, Nebraska and the Dakotas. Currently, seventy-nine percent of the entire Missouri River Basin is in drought, including areas of Missouri and Kansas. Eighteen percent is in extreme drought. Kansas City itself is classified as “abnormally dry.”
“Last summer, we didn’t have a lot of rain and we relied on the flow from further north to keep our water at a good level,” says Rachel Bartels, the Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper. If we don’t have the flow coming in but are still getting rain consistently, then [the drought] shouldn’t have too much of an impact. But there are always other issues. Boat ramps may be getting washed out in the meantime. Everything feels unpredictable. Given the changing climate, it seems like anything could happen.”
Low water levels could also affect the Kansas City drinking water supply. Bartels estimates that about ninety percent of the drinking water in the KC area comes from the Missouri River. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources has also issued a report warning that certain water demands could not be met long term, especially in drought conditions.
KC Water has installed auxiliary pumps, called mud puppies, in the river in the event of extremely low water levels. “Fortunately,” Gazaway says, “we have never quite reached the low level where we had to rely on them, but they have been tested and are there as a precaution.” While the water levels are lower than usual, Gazaway doesn’t see any cause for alarm, saying “we have a plan in place.”
The quality of the water is another concern for Bartels, whose role as Waterkeeper is to lead a citizen organization focused on conservation and clean water. When companies have a permit to dump waste into the river, the permits require them to report how many pounds they dump but do not adjust those numbers based on flow.
“If we have high flows, there’s more dilution of those chemicals,” Bartels says. “But if we have a very low water year, there’s less water flowing through, and that could potentially be a problem.”
Spring is typically the wettest time of year for the Missouri River basin, but in the coming years, Missouri is expected to see even hotter, drier summers and wetter springs and winters. The combination landed the lower Missouri River, which flows through KC, number two on American Rivers’s list of America’s most endangered rivers in both 2020 and 2021 based on the river’s poor flood management and the potential impact of climate change.
As far as recreation, low water levels provide a great opportunity for kayakers and paddle boarders to take to the river. “A lower water level actually means the sandbars will be out,” Bartels says. “It’s more pleasant for recreation because you have great beaches. So there is a small silver lining to lower river levels.”