Dry spring intensifies debate on Missouri River

Tuesday, June 4, 2002

Associated Press WriterCHAMBERLAIN, S.D. (AP) -- High water destroyed Charlotte Cadwell's marina on Lake Francis Case in 1997, so she rebuilt. Now the 72-year-old woman faces a different foe: low water.

Receding levels have wiped out the Missouri River reservoir's precious walleye fish eggs, made it difficult for fishermen to launch their boats and left Cadwell unable to rent some docks. Her restaurant and bait shop are suffering, too.

"We live in hope. We hope every day the water is going to be up," she said.

That puts her right in the middle of a decade-long legal and political battle over how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers uses its dams and reservoirs to manage the water level of the drought-stricken Missouri River, which flows 2,341 miles through seven states.

The dispute along Big Muddy pits upstream states against downstream ones.

Cadwell and many others in the upstream states of South Dakota, North Dakota and Montana want the corps to keep water levels high for the benefit of fishing and pleasure boating.

But people downstream worry that any big changes could hurt barge traffic, farmers, power companies and other businesses in Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri.

The fight is expected to intensify any day now when the Corps of Engineers issues its recommendations for revising the Master Manual, which governs the way the river is managed. The revisions have been 12 years in the making.

The battle over those recommendations is likely to be fought out in the courts and in Congress.

"We have no choice but to fight until we get this thing resolved," said Donald Huffman, manager of Missouri River freight sales for MEMCO Barge Line in St. Louis. "We do share the pain down here. We can't do anything about droughts. We all lose when there's a drought."

John Brakss, owner of the Spring Creek Resort on Lake Oahe near Pierre, said: "I think we're looking at a political battle that will last forever, unfortunately. But I hope I'm wrong."

The Missouri River drains one-sixth of the United States, with a basin that includes all or parts of 10 states. It begins at Three Forks, Mont., in the Rocky Mountains and empties into the Mississippi River at St. Louis. It has six reservoirs -- four of them in South Dakota and one each in Montana and North Dakota.

The Corps of Engineers tries to juggle the competing interests along the river.

Everyone agrees the No. 1 priority is flood control to save lives and property, said Paul Johnston, a corps spokesman in Omaha, Neb. But after that, priorities differ according to where people live.

"I don't have any illusion we're going to make everybody happy all the time," Johnston said.

In the past month, in fact, five states have gone to federal court in upstream-vs.-downstream battles over the water. The states have won rulings and counter-rulings to either stop the corps from lowering reservoir levels or to force the corps to maintain adequate flow downstream after this year's extraordinarily dry winter and spring.

At stake on one side are the tens of millions of dollars in revenue from fishing and other recreation, and, on the other side, the untold millions from industrial and commercial operations.

In deciding how the Master Manual should be revised, the corps has six options. The two main ones: keeping the current operating plan, which maintains a fairly even flow from spring through fall, or adopting a seasonal ebb and flow.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and environmentalists are backing the ebb-and-flow plan, which would boost spring releases and cut summer flows to mimic the natural conditions that existed before the river was dammed and channeled between the 1940s and the mid-1960s.

Environmentalists see ebb-and-flow as a way to protect endangered fish and birds such as the pallid sturgeon, the least tern and the piping plover. Some upstream interests favor that option, because it would involve releasing a lot of water only once every three years.

But some downstream states say the ebb-and-flow plan would flood valuable farmland in the spring, and destroy the barge industry, hurt power generation and cause other damage during the summer. For example, when the river runs low because of drought, barges cannot be loaded as heavily as usual, and that costs shippers money.

Randy Asbury, executive director of the Coalition to Protect the Missouri River, which represents the barge industry, farmers and other businesses, said the coalition supports recreation and the protection of wildlife.

"We just think anything that is to be done with habitat restoration needs to consider the economic and social impacts as well, so that there's balance and common sense," Asbury said.

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