White House backed plan to postpone 'spring rise'

Sunday, July 14, 2002

ST. LOUIS -- A long-awaited plan to return the Missouri River to a more natural state would be delayed by five years under an Army Corps of Engineers proposal backed by the White House and kept quiet, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

The corps' much-delayed and politically sensitive decision on the Missouri's flow was indefinitely postponed last month. In Sunday's editions, the newspaper cites unidentified government sources as saying the corps' preference is now to postpone for five years a spring rise in river levels to study the matter further.

That's a preference that is being quietly backed by the Bush Administration during an election year when the president has Republican allies on both sides of the issue.

For more than a decade, the corps has been reviewing the possible flow changes long sought by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That agency insists that a more natural flow, with heavier spring releases and less water in the summer, is required to protect endangered fish and birds by providing channels and sandbars for nesting and spawning.

The corps operates a series of dams and reservoirs to keep water flowing straighter and deeper for barge shipments. Fish and Wildlife administers the Endangered Species Act and has given the corps until 2003 to switch to a more seasonal ebb and flow.

The plan now backed by the White House and the corps does endorse a summer drawdown of water, but at levels far short of what Fish and Wildlife says is necessary. The corps is proposing that summer levels not drop below 28,000 cubic feet of water per second. The service says the flow needs to drop to 21,000 cubic feet to help wildlife.

The five-year delay would be a victory for elected officials from downstream states, who have argued that the Fish and Wildlife plan would jeopardize barge and farm interests.

Upstream vs. downstream

Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., praised the idea of a delay.

"It allows time for some very good experts to evaluate what the pallid sturgeon and these species really need," Bond said.

But politicians upstream say downstream economic interests on the river are small compared with the benefits of keeping their reservoir levels high. And environmental advocates say evidence in favor of the Fish and Wildlife plan continues to grow.

Chad Smith, Midwestern field director for the conservation group American Rivers, called the proposed five-year delay "a slap in the face to everyone in the basin."

"The corps is simply ignoring the science and trying to deal in the political realm, which is not their charge as the federal agency that manages this river," Smith said.

White House support for the delay was revealed at a May 21 Pentagon meeting between officials from the corps, Fish and Wildlife, and the White House Office of Environmental Quality, the Post-Dispatch reported.

The White House did not reveal its plans publicly. Instead, the corps and Fish and Wildlife officials were told to return to the table for further talks.

Those talks are scheduled to continue at least through July. Whatever decision is made, the Fish and Wildlife Service will have to decide whether the corps is violating the Endangered Species Act. The issue could end up in court.

Richard Opper, executive director of the eight-state Missouri River Basin Association, said that in his experience it becomes much harder for the government to make important decisions during election years.

"I've been through lots of election cycles, and both the decibel levels of the discussions and the general weirdness levels increase greatly when elections approach, particularly when control of the Senate is up for grabs," Opper said. "With friends in both halves of the Missouri River basin, the administration has a very, very tough decision to make. There's no way to get out of it without upsetting folks."

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