Missouri River Management Proposals Offer Conflicting Visions

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, August 31, 2001 (ENS) - An environmental review released today will help determine the future course of Missouri River management - whether water flows favor wildlife habitat and endangered species, or the barge traffic that carries much of the Midwest's agricultural bounty. The public will be offered an opportunity to comment on these alternatives, and help decide the future of a river that has been called the nation's most endangered.


The Corps dredges the Missouri River to accomodate barge traffic, reducing suitable habitat for pallid sturgeon and other species (Photo courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
Two widely divergent visions for the river are buried within the bureaucratic and technical language of the draft "Master Water Control Manual" environmental impact statement for the Army Corps of Engineers' six Missouri River dams. One vision is for a river restored - supporting robust fish and wildlife populations and driving the region's economy as a recreation and tourism destination. The other is for the status quo - a river shackled to protect a languishing barge industry and placate unfounded fears of increased flooding.

"The question before us is, do we want a river we can be proud of for the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark's voyage?" said Rebecca Wodder, president of American Rivers, which designated the river as the nation's Most Endangered River in April 2001. "For more than ten years, a handful of special interests have used every trick in the book to prevent the public from having its chance to answer that."

The battle over competing visions for the river has raged for more than a decade, but took on new urgency last November when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) informed the Corps that its dam operations were contributing to the decline of three protected species. USFWS scientists called on the Corps to release more water from the dams in the spring in some years, and hold more water back each summer to improve river conditions for the pallid sturgeon, the interior least tern and the piping plover - and warned that the Army Corps would soon be in violation of the Endangered Species Act if it failed to do so.

Changing flows as these scientists recommend would not just prevent the extinction of the three species, but would improve conditions for a tremendous variety of fish and wildlife species that live in and along the river. By making the river a more attractive destination for tourism and many types of outdoor recreation, adjusting flows would expand economic activities that already bring $90 million in economic benefits to the region each year.

piping plover

The threatened piping plover needs dry sand bars for nesting. Current Missouri River management may flood that habitat during nesting season (Photo courtesy Nebraska Game and Parks Commission)
Agricultural and shipping interests that benefit from the status quo along the river have thus far waged a successful fight to prevent any adjustments in dam operations, challenging the science behind the USFWS recommendations, predicting dire consequences for floodplain farmers and commercial navigation, and making unsubstantiated claims in the press about increased flooding risk.

"Reforming dam operations on the Missouri River is as much about people as it is about fish and wildlife," said Wodder. "River species, recreation, floodplain farming, hydropower, and all other uses of the Missouri River can coexist if we choose to let them."

The draft environmental impact statement offers six alternatives, but does not present a single preferred alternative. Instead, the agency says it is seeking an open discussion regarding all the options and their impacts rather than focusing on a single plan.

The final environmental impact statement, scheduled for release in May 2002, will contain a single preferred alternative, based on science, public opinion, environmental imperatives and other project purposes, such as navigation and flood damage reduction, the Corps said.

"We have come to a very important point in the review and update process for the Missouri River Master Manual," said Colonel David Fastabend, the Corps' northwestern division engineer. "We feel it is important to present more than one plan and receive comments from the people affected by the proposed changes. The [Revised Draft Environmental Impact Statement] includes analyses of the alternatives that allow people to understand and compare the impacts of potential changes."

pallid sturgeon

Pallid sturgeon need strong spring flows to trigger reproduction, and shallow water in the summer for young fish (Photo by Ken Bouc, courtesy Nebraska Game and Parks Commission)
The Revised Draft Environmental Impact Statement (RDEIS) analyzes the environmental effects of six alternative operating plans for the Master Manual - the current water control plan, a modified conservation plan, and four alternatives that add various Gavins Point Dam releases to the modified conservation plan, including a spring rise and low summer releases.

The document also offers a description of the economic, social and environmental impacts on flood control, navigation, fish and wildlife, hydropower, water supply, water quality, recreation and irrigation.

There are features common to all the alternatives except the current water control plan. The common features are:

Four alternatives add a range of modified releases from Gavins Point Dam, including:


Four alternatives would involve altering water releases from Gavins Point Dam in South Dakota (Photo courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
A "spring rise" from Gavins Point Dam of 15,000 cfs to 20,000 cfs for two weeks on average every three years to trigger pallid sturgeon spawning. If implemented, the rise would begin at 15,000 cfs, and the effects on sturgeon would be monitored and evaluated. The rise would not be provided in years with high downstream tributary flows like 2001 and would take downstream flood threats into consideration.

Low annual releases from Gavins Point from mid-June to mid-August to provide nesting habitat for least terns and piping plovers. Releases would be reduced to the minimum navigation service level of about 28,000 cfs to 21,000 cfs, followed by monitoring and evaluation.

The Corps will accept public comments on the draft for six months, until the end of February 2002. During that time, workshops and hearings will be held from Helena, Montana, to New Orleans, Louisiana, to explain the plans and take comments.

The Summary of the Revised Draft Environmental Impact Statement, workshop schedule, library depositories and other support material are available at http://www.nwd.usace.army.mil. The complete document will be available by mid-September.


The endangered interior least tern needs exposed sand bars to nest successfully (Photo courtesy USFWS)
Although relieved to reach this milestone after years of delay, conservation groups pointed today to what they called "troubling signs" that the Army Corps is stacking the deck against changing dam operations:

"It looks to me like this was a sweetheart deal between the White House and Senator Kit Bond from Missouri," said Senator Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, in an August 17 statement on the draft plan.

American Rivers and other conservation organizations have launched a new website, http://www.SaveTheMissouri.org, to provide additional information on the Missouri River and allow visitors to submit comments to the Corps via fax or E-mail.

"Because the Corps is tilting the comment period in favor of the status quo, it's particularly urgent for people who want the Missouri River restored to speak up," Wodder said. "Missouri River basin residents, hunters and anglers, and anyone who cares about healthy rivers and fish and wildlife can visit www.SaveTheMissouri.org and take action."