Divisions are plenty in Missouri River fight

Monday, October 22, 2001

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- To see how important the Missouri River is to its namesake state, check out the itinerary of Michael Wells.

The chief of water resources for Missouri's Department of Natural Resources was in Helena, Mont., on Oct. 9, testifying at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' first public hearing about proposed changes to the flow of the river.

Two days later, Wells was in Sioux City, Iowa, presenting more testimony at another corps hearing.

In the weeks ahead, Wells or other state water officials plan to attend four more hearings in Bismarck and New Town, N.D., and Pierre and Lower Brule, S.D.

If Missouri officials didn't consider the issue so important, they could just wait.

The corps, after all, has similar public hearings scheduled in St. Joseph, Kansas City, Jefferson City and St. Louis beginning Nov. 1 and continuing through Nov. 13.

Missouri and other downstream states such as Kansas and Iowa have been fighting for years with upstream states such as Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota.

At stake is the water itself.

Corps faces choice

The Missouri River is blocked upstream by six dams that create electricity, recreation and jobs, and it is controlled downstream by channelization and levees that allow barge traffic and protect farmland.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the dams and thus the water levels, is considering whether to stick with the status quo or adopt an alternative that could change the river levels.

Several options would release more water from Gavins Point Dam -- the southernmost of the dams -- for two weeks in the spring every three years. Those options also would reduce the water released from mid-June through mid-August.

The changes are touted as a way to mimic the river's natural ebb and flow, reinvigorating the endangered pallid sturgeon, a fish, and providing nesting habitat for the least tern and piping glover, two endangered or threatened birds.

But some Missouri officials dispute the supposed benefits, sometimes putting the state's conservation agency against the Missouri agency that oversees natural resources.

The river's traditional high mark occurs in June, with July second and a gradual decline through the end of the year, said Ron Kucera, deputy director for policy at the Department of Natural Resources.

Creating an unnaturally low period in the early summer would do little for the animals, Kucera contends, but "it will end river commerce in Missouri." It also could create an unnaturally high flow in late fall, he says.

Raising river levels in the spring would be similarly unnatural, Kucera says, and would only make it more difficult for flood-plain farmers to drain their fields to get crops planted.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: