WASHINGTON -- Environmentalists said Friday the Missouri River's managers are choosing business interests over protecting wildlife by backing away from plans to alter the flow of the waterway.
The Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the federal Endangered Species Act, says that switching to a seasonal ebb and flow is the only way to save the pallid sturgeon, least tern and piping plover. Barge and farm interests argue the change would shut down a vital shipping artery.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Friday proposed an array of alternatives for managing the Missouri, including keeping the current flow as it is. The agency had been leaning toward the wildlife service changes, but officials indicated last month they would back off that approach.
The corps wants to manage the river to control flooding, generate hydropower and benefit shippers yet protect endangered fish and birds, too, said Col. David Fastabend, commander of the corps' northwestern operations.
"The corps understands this is a complex, contentious issue," Fastabend said Friday. "We are still trying to do the right thing."
The public may comment on the proposals for the next six months, and the corps will hold more than a dozen hearings in addition to accepting written input. The corps intends to pick a single management plan next May.
Study due in October
A National Academy of Sciences study on the issue is due in late October and is sure to have significant impact, the corps said.
Still, Fastabend cautioned, "I doubt that throughout the process we're ultimately going to resolve all the scientific issues."
"I can't delay my decision 'till I eliminate the uncertainty," he added.
Besides maintaining current water releases, the six options include seasonal operations being pushed by the wildlife service. But critics worry this is simply an attempt to placate environmentalists.
"The corps is tilting the comment period in favor of the status quo," said Rebecca Wodder, president of the environmental group American Rivers.
The group pointed out the agency will hold many hearings in downriver cities and towns dependent on farming and barge traffic, but not in recreation-dependent locations such as Yankton and Garrison, N.D., and Omaha, Neb. The corps' Missouri River headquarters is in Omaha.