Corps of Engineers refuses to drop levels of Missouri River

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers refused late Tuesday to reduce water levels on the Missouri River, despite orders from a federal judge to cut flows to protect endangered birds and fish.

Instead, the corps launched formal talks with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service intended to result in a new "master manual" for the river's flow by spring 2004. The new plan of operations was due in 2002, but the Bush administration postponed it last summer.

The corps said the administration will ask Congress for $42 million next year for an unprecedented effort to restore the Missouri River ecosystem.

The agency said the judge's order, issued Saturday, placed it under conflicting rulings.

"It is impossible to simultaneously comply with the conflicting flow requirements obtained in the two orders," the corps said in a statement issued late Tuesday.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Saturday ordered the low flows to comply with the Endangered Species Act. But the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska ruled last year the river must have enough water for barges to navigate and power plants to operate.

At issue is an effort to restore the Missouri to a more natural spring rise and low summer flows to encourage fish spawning and bird nesting by species that are on the federal threatened and endangered lists.

Such a change would also benefit the lake recreation industry upriver in Montana and the Dakotas, but farmers and residents along the lower reaches of the river in Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri worry a spring rise would flood homes and farmland, while low summer flows would devastate the barge shipping industry.

There was a flurry of legal wrangling this week. The Justice Department and the state of Nebraska asked Monday for a stay from U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler, who had ordered the low flows. She denied the request Tuesday morning.