Saving the river

Monday, February 4, 2002

Despite what the barge industry, farmers, power companies and U.S. Sen. Kit Bond say, there's no proof that a plan that proposes major flow changes to the Missouri River would have a significant impact on the Missouri or adjoining Mississippi River.

That's how environmentalist groups and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service respond to claims from those entities that say the changes would cause flooding and drown out fields in the spring and deplete the river depth in the summer, making barge navigation impossible.

"Those are false claims," said Chad Smith with American Rivers, a national river conservation group based in Lincoln, Neb. "I understand how they would be interested in what's going to happen, but I would direct them to the facts."

What there is proof of, Smith and others say, is that the Missouri River ecosystem will continue to degrade unless the river's natural flow is significantly restored. That includes a study released in January by the National Academy of Sciences, a private nonprofit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter.

Plan changes

For more than a dozen years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been mulling changes in its master manual, its guidebook for how it releases water from six major dams on the upper Missouri.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service raised the stakes in the process two years ago when it told the Corps that without altering releases to mimic the river's natural flow, including a high-water rise in the spring and lower flows in the summer, two endangered birds and an endangered fish would disappear from the Missouri basin.

Such changes are opposed by economic interests who have depended on a controlled, more stable river, including barge operators, power companies and farmers. In the process, it has created a contentious debate between the Missouri River basin states and, among others, U.S. Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

The Corps had signaled for months that it would endorse what it called a "spring rise" that also included reducing its summer flows to mimic the Missouri's natural flow. But in August, the Corps, in what some said was a politically-influenced move, said it would instead simply offer the options without recommendation.

Daschle disapproved.

"I'm deeply disappointed," he told the Washington Post. "This turns the whole process on its head. The Corps is playing politics with Missouri."

Local impact

The debate was brought downstream to Cape Girardeau when one in a series of meetings was held here Jan. 21 to discuss impacts to the Mississippi, which some claim would be affected because Missouri River water ends up in the Mississippi River. Some estimate it would raise the river level as much as 2 feet here during the spring and decrease the levels by that much in the summer.

There is a great deal of opposition -- including from Missouri Gov. Bob Holden, the state's Department of Natural Resources and President George W. Bush -- but Smith of American Rivers said something has to be done to restore the natural flows to the Missouri.

"We're not talking about going back to the days of Lewis and Clark on the Missouri," he said. "We need some more natural flows. That's the way it was before, more water in the spring, less water in the summer."

High flows in the spring is a trigger for fish, which signals them that it's time to spawn.

"They need that reproductive queue back," he said. "They're really having trouble making a go of it."

High flows also make sand bars and clears vegetation so it returns to just sand, Smith said. Lower flows help create sand bars, which are an important nesting place for bird species. And unlike what some opponents say, Smith said the changes are not just for two birds and one fish.

"What's good for those species is also good for catfish and mallards and other native species," Smith said.

With so much at stake, Smith said that the burden of proof should rest with opponents.

"They have to prove that there would be and they can't," he said. "They use a lot of rhetoric to try and scare people. The flow of the Missouri River isn't going to change significantly enough to make any company go belly up."

Helping the Missouri

Mike Olsen is the Missouri River Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He agrees that opponents are only telling half the story.

"The worst-case scenario is 2 feet of water either way, but that's one time in 100 years," he said. "Those facts are always left out of their comments. What we're trying to do with these changes is repair some of the ecological needs of the Missouri River. That's it."

Olsen cited the National Academy of Sciences study, which recommends that Congress enact legislation to ensure that the federal officials manage the river in a way that improves ecological conditions.

The construction of the dams in the Missouri River basin, the channelization of the lower 735 miles of the river, the building of levees and other human activities over the past century have led to significant reductions in the natural habitat and abundance of native species along the Missouri River, the report says.

For example, nearly 3 million acres of habitat on the river's banks and floodplain have undergone human alterations. In addition to the one endangered fish, the report notes that of the 67 fish species native to the river, 51 are now listed as rare, uncommon or decreasing in numbers.

Perhaps most important, the report says, the sediment flow has been dramatically reduced, in some places by more than 100 million tons a year. Sediment flow, the report says, is crucial to maintaining a river system's geological and biological structure and functions.

Olsen said that restoring natural water flow in large rivers is a new idea, but that scientists know the natural rise and fall in water levels is essential to biological productivity.

"Nobody is saying take the dams out," he said. "We just want to restore some of the function of the river that used to happen naturally."

Olsen also is skeptical about the dire impacts that opponents promise.

"As far as the impacts to the citizens of the lower Missouri River basin, I do not think the average citizen would be able to tell," he said. "I really don't."

Charlie Scott, a field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Columbia, Mo., says so far it's all been about misinformation.

"You know what, navigation might be affected, but where's the tradeoff?" he said. "The real bottom line is the Missouri River is pretty screwed up and something needs to be done."

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