Missouri River Report Favors Managing Water for Wildlife

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, December 1, 2000 (ENS) - The Missouri River should be returned to a more natural flow, conclude the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Army Corps of Engineers in their final biological opinion on current Missouri River dam operations. The report concludes months of consultations and controversy, and sets the stage for recovery of troubled Missouri River wildlife.

The final opinion is the result of a formal process required by the Endangered Species Act and conducted jointly by the Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Corps. In the past, the two agencies have been at odds about how to protect Missouri River wildlife without reducing the river's role in transporting agricultural products.

least tern

The endangered least tern needs dry sand bars for nesting. Current Missouri River management may flood that habitat during nesting season (Photo courtesy USFWS)
Working together, the agencies have now completed an Endangered Species Act consultation regarding operation of the Missouri River's dams and reservoirs, bank stabilization and navigation projects, and related operations of the Kansas River tributary reservoirs.

"This is an extremely complex issue and the biological opinion is a result of intensive discussions between the Service and the Corps," said Ralph Morgenweck, USFWS director for the Mountain-Prairie region. "But I believe we have developed a plan that will benefit the entire Missouri River ecosystem."

"There is significant agreement between the Corps and Service on the known biological attributes necessary to recover the listed species," said Brigadier General Carl Strock, Northwestern division engineer at the Corps.

Environmental groups largely supported the final biological opinion.

"This opinion clearly lays out what needs to change on the Missouri River to restore natural flows and avoid extinction," said Chad Smith, director of American Rivers' Missouri River Field Office. "It's exhaustive, it's based on a mountain of science, and it's a reasoned approach."

piping plover

The threatened piping plover also needs dry sand bars on the Missouri River for nesting (Photo courtesy Nebraska Game and Parks Commission)
The Corps is currently revising the Missouri River Master Water Control Manual ("Master Manual"), the guide used by the federal agency to set releases for six dams in eastern Montana and the Dakotas. This review of dam operations has been ongoing since 1989, but the Corps has not yet proposed reforms that would meet the needs of federally protected species.

The final biological opinion concludes that the endangered pallid sturgeon and least tern, and the threatened piping plover, are jeopardized by dam operations that have eliminated the river's natural flow patterns. The opinion notes that these and other species struggle to survive due to habitat loss and alteration.

As a result, the biological opinion includes "jeopardy" finding, meaning if the Corps fails to change dam operations appropriately, the least tern, piping plover and pallid sturgeon are likely to go extinct on the Missouri River.

To prevent this, the opinion includes several "reasonable and prudent alternatives" that are designed to assist in the recovery of threatened and endangered species. Suggested steps include a "spring rise" in water flows and lower summer flows out of Gavins Point Dam, a "spring rise" out of Ft. Peck Dam, habitat restoration, adaptive management of the river system and intensive biological monitoring.

Reforming dam operations to include a modest spring rise and low summer flow would meet the needs of recreation and river wildlife without impacting the river's traditional uses, federal studies indicate.

River scientists say that increased spring flows are needed to provide a reproductive cue for sturgeon, and to build the sandbars used by nesting terns and plovers. Lower summer flows would ensure that sandbars remain dry during the nesting season, and provide shallow water for young fish.

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)
"These fish and birds will go extinct unless dam operations are improved," Smith said. "The science is clear - rising flows in the spring and declining flows in the summer are needed to avoid the extinction of these species."

A modest spring rise could be implemented without interfering with draining floodplain farms or increasing flood losses, Corps studies show. Suspending barge traffic for a short time during the summer would preserve Missouri River barge navigation in the spring and fall - when farmers use the Missouri to ship goods - and would benefit lower Mississippi River navigation.

The Corps reserved the right to change its mind about supporting the biological opinion in the future.

"The Corps is absolutely committed to its role in recovery of the listed species but we also have an obligation to support other project purposes," said General Strock. "Our initial assessment is that elements of the biological opinion slightly increase the risk of flooding and are detrimental to navigation."

"As we develop our implementation plan we will evaluate the impact of the reasonable and prudent alternative on these and other project purposes," Strock said. "It is possible that the Corps will propose an alternative that meets the biological objectives with reduced impacts in other areas."

Downriver states like Missouri oppose changing the schedule of water releases from upriver dams, saying it could reduce water flow in summer, when most agricultural barge traffic travels the river.

Missouri lawmakers led an attempt earlier this year to pass an Corps appropriations bill rider that would have barred the implementation of lock and dam operative reforms on the Missouri River. President Bill Clinton vetoed the Corps budget bill, forcing Congress to remove the rider to assure passage of the bill.


The Corps dredges to Missouri River to accomodate barge traffic, reducing suitable habitat for pallid sturgeon and other species (Photo courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
Current dam operations favor barge traffic over recreation and river wildlife. But environmentalists argue that recreation produces at least 10 times as many benefits as commercial navigation.

A spring rise out of Gavins Point Dam, coupled with low flows during the summer, could aid recreation in the upper Missouri River basin by keeping reservoirs higher during the summer, which helps marinas and other recreation dependent businesses in the Dakotas and Montana.

In the lower basin, lower summer flows from Gavins Point Dam could attract anglers, canoeists, campers, and others to the lower Missouri River by providing slower, shallower water and exposing sandbars built by the spring rise.

"Reforming dam operations to include modestly higher spring flows and lower summer flows would boost recreation and river wildlife and meet the needs of the traditional uses of the Missouri River," said Smith.

"The Missouri River is an incredibly important resource, serving many needs for many people," said William Hartwig, director of the USFWS Great Lakes-Big Rivers Region. "We must recognize as well the needs of the natural resources of the river, particularly imperiled species, and do our best in managing the Missouri to ensure their survival."

The Corps will now begin a process of developing a new preferred alternative for the Master Manual with the final biological opinion in hand. That alternative is expected this spring and will be followed by an extensive public comment period.

"Work on several parts of the RPA [Reasonable and Prudent Alternative] are already underway, including studies for a possible test of modified flows out of Fort Peck Dam as early as next spring," said General Strock. "Over the next few months we will consult with impacted tribal governments, states, and other regional stakeholders to craft the details of our implementation plan."

"The Corps has consistently failed to implement or even consider dam reforms that satisfy the Endangered Species Act," said Smith. "In the next few months, the Corps has a window of opportunity to meet the modern needs of the Missouri River basin. They must take that opportunity for the good of the river and the good of the citizens of this basin."

The biological opinion is available on at: http://www.nwd-mr.usace.army.mil/mmanual/opinion.htm

More information regarding the Missouri River biological opinion is available at: http://Mountain-prairie.fws.gov/missouririver