Congress Urged to Reverse Missouri River Decline

WASHINGTON, DC, January 10, 2002 (ENS) - Degradation of the natural Missouri River ecosystem is clear and continuing, says a new report from the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. Congress should enact legislation to ensure that federal officials manage the river in a way that improves ecological conditions, says the committee that wrote the report, "The Missouri River Ecosystem: Exploring the Prospects for Recovery."


Big Bend Dam on the Missouri River (Photos courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
Committee chair Steven Gloss, who is program manager of the Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center, U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Arizona says that from an ecological perspective, based on the committee's two year study, the river is in "a serious state of decline."

The ecosystem also faces the prospect of "irreversible extinction of species," the report warns.

To halt the river's degradation, the committee recommends a moratorium on the ongoing U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Master Manual planning process and the institution of a "formal multiple stakeholder group" that includes the Corps, the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, Indian tribes, the Missouri River basin states, floodplain farmers, navigation groups, municipalities, environmental and recreational groups."

"Support of the U.S. Congress is ultimately needed to help establish acceptable goals for the use and management of the Missouri River system," the committee said. It called on Congress to enact a federal Missouri River Protection and Recovery Act designed to improve ecological conditions in the Missouri River ecosystem.

Nearly three million acres of natural riverine and floodplain habitat bluff to bluff along the Missouri River's mainstem have been altered through land use changes, inundation, channelization, and levee building, the committee says. Sentiment transport, the hallmark of the pre-regulation Missouri River, nicknamed Big Muddy, has been much reduced.


Pallid sturgeon are classified as endangered
Of the 67 native fish species living along the mainstem, five are now listed as rare, uncommon, or decreasing across all or part of their ranges. One of these fishes, the pallid sturgeon, and two bird species, the least tern and piping plover, are on the federal Endangered Species List. The flies that provide food for Missouri River fishes have been reduced by 70 percent.

Reproduction of cottonwoods, historically the most abundant and ecologically important tree species on the floodplain, has largely ceased.

"The river is too big and complex for us to know where the point of irreparable environmental change lies, or how close the river may be to passing that point," Gloss said. "But we do know that to repair the existing damage, we must re-establish some degree of natural hydrological processes, and do so in a manner based on the latest scientific information."

Brigadier General David Fastabend, who commands the Northwest division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is in charge of managing water flows on the Missouri River through the Corps' operation of the six large dams that are the centerpiece of the Missouri River water storage system, the largest in North America. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation operates the seventh, Canyon Ferry Dam, east of Helena, Montana.

Guidance for the Corps' water release schedule is established in its Master Manual. The Corps began to revise the manual 14 years ago but has not finished because of disputes among various stakeholders. The Research Council report calls for a moratorium on further revisions of the manual until such changes reflect a science based approach known as adaptive management.


The least tern is listed as endangered
Adaptive management recognizes that scientific uncertainties and unforeseen environmental changes are inevitable. It seeks to design organizations and policies that can adapt to and benefit from those changes. Not merely an elaborate trial and error approach, it emphasizes the use of carefully designed and monitored experiments, based on input from scientists, managers, and citizens, as opportunities to maintain or restore ecological resilience and to learn more about ecosystems. This information then guides management policies.

General Fastabend told reporters he welcomes the scientific information in the report, and agrees with the adaptive management concept, but he does not intend to place a moratorium on the Master Manual process. Instead, the Corps intends to continue the ongoing environmental impact assessment and will accept public comments until February 28.

"We intend to develop a Final Environmental Impact Statement in May of this year and a Record of Decision in October of '02," the general said. "Our intent is to continue the Master Manual revision as well as our coordination with the Fish and Wildlife Service."

The council's report says the Corps' water release schedule for the dams enhances navigation for barges by maintaining a nine foot deep channel from Sioux City, Iowa, downstream to St. Louis - even though barge traffic has decreased steadily since 1977.


Barge traffic on the Missouri River
This emphasis on navigation has put the Corps at the center of controversy between those who want greater amounts of natural water flow and those who prefer the status quo. Environmentalists want the Corps to allow greater natural water flow to restore the river's ecosystem. Recreational users and the tourist industry say low water levels caused by the Corps' restrictions hamper fishing, swimming, and boating.

But farmers downstream from the dams worry that more water will cause spring flooding that could damage their crops. David Sieck, member of the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) and Glenwood, Iowa, corn grower, was encouraged by the Research Council report.

"The report has said what NCGA has been saying all along - there are problems and there is no clear-cut way to solve them," said Sieck. "The Army Corps of Engineers needs to able to look at options that would reach a compromise between groups wanting a flow change and groups fighting a spring rise situation. There's too much at stake for it to be all or nothing."

The NCGA supports management of the Missouri River that places the highest priority on economic uses of the river - power generation, flood control for agricultural land, navigation and irrigation, but recognizes the recreational and environmental value of the river.

river General Fastabend says the Research Council report is good and useful but will not change much for the Corps.

"As much as we admire the National Academy of Sciences, he said, "it doesn't have the legal authority of what we get from Congress or the judicial authority of what we get out of the courts. The Endangered Species Act tells me I have to respond to a biological opinion. And the Fish and Wildlife Service has given us a biological opinion that tells us that the way the Corps runs the river right now puts three listed endangered species in jeopardy. And they've given us a date of 2003 to implement flow changes."

Adaptive management is the central theme of the Research Council committee's recommendation. "Adaptive management should be adopted as an ecosystem management paradigm and decision making framework for modifying water resources and reservoir management for the Missouri River ecosystem. As part of this management strategy, the goal of improving ecological conditions should be considered on par with other management goals," the report says.

General Fastabend agrees with the Research Council's emphasis on adaptive management, and also with its acknowledgement that this approach is not an easy one.

"The corps signs up for adaptive management, the Corps likes adaptive management, but of course it depends how you define it," the general said. "The report talks about integrating adaptive management. We are totally in agreement. The report says this is very hard, we know that. It is incredibly hard, and we hope this report helps people understand why it takes so long."

The Corps would participate in the formal multiple stakeholder group proposed in the Research Council report, the general said. "We are generally in agreement with the idea of a body, maybe not independent, but established by legislation. We support the idea of an entity that can help integrate," he said, "but that is clearly a political decision, not ours."

Chad Smith, director of American Rivers Nebraska field office in Lincoln, says environmental groups basically agree with the Research Council report, but not with the recommendation that a moratorium be placed on the Corps' Master Manual process.

"There are environmental laws that have to be followed and one of the main ones is the National Environmental Policy Act, and a big centerpiece of that law is making sure that the public has an appropriate amount of input into decisions that are being made," said Smith.

"The Corps has spent millions of taxpayer dollars for 12 years now making sure that they're putting things in front of the public and generating information and letting people understand that and comment on it. You have to make sure that that's built into any kind of process, and it would seem kind of silly to completely abandon it," Smith said, "even though we don't see what's being proposed now in the Master Manual as the end all and be all."

The most significant scientific unknowns in the Missouri River ecosystem are how the ecosystem will respond to management actions designed to improve ecological conditions, the committee and the Corps agree. Any law passed by Congress, the committee urged, should include a requirement for periodic, independent review of progress toward implementing adaptive management in the Missouri River ecosystem.

Email your comments to or write to: US Army Corps of Engineers, ATTN: Missouri River RDEIS, 12565 W Center Rd, Omaha NE 68144.

Read "The Missouri River Ecosystem: Exploring the Prospects for Recovery." online at:

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Missouri River Master Manual: