On the Missouri, the middle grounds gets soggy

  • Upper and lower basins of the Missouri River

    Map by Diane Sylvain
  • Ryan Dam near Great Falls, Montana

    Neal and Mary Jane Mishler photo

Only a decade ago, animosity between states in the Missouri River's upper and lower basins was out of control. If the states weren't suing each other over Missouri River flows, they were attacking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for that agency's management of the river system. South Dakota Gov. William Janklow grumbled that the Corps "throws us the crumbs and operates the way downstream states want (the river) operated." South Dakotans wore baseball caps that proclaimed "The Corps Sucks," and the upper basin states, led by Janklow, unsuccessfully sought to change the Missouri's dam management policies in Congress and the courts.

Now, apparently, peace, if not brotherhood, unites the former combatants. An agreement between river basin states, brokered by the Missouri River Basin Association, provides the Corps of Engineers with a new approach to river management. Richard Opper, executive director of the association, applauded the agreement. "We still have issues to resolve, and we always will," he said, "but the fact remains that we have just taken a major step toward solving some of the most difficult and contentious issues we face."

However, just as the coalition of eight states and 30 Indian tribes seemingly made peace, a new antagonist entered the debate: an environmental group. It says the agreement does little to help the river's endangered species and other fish and wildlife, and provides only minimal protection to upper basin reservoirs.

"The only consensus about this plan," said Chad Smith, a spokesman for American Rivers, "is that it will accelerate the death spiral that native fish and wildlife on the Missouri River find themselves in."

Smith and other environmentalists want to see wildlife habitat restored to a river system that has been damaged by decades of development. Dams and reservoirs in the Dakotas and Montana drowned about 1 million acres of the most diverse habitat on the northern plains, while channelization, straightening and flood control measures along the lower river eliminated 70 miles of main channel, as well as islands, wetlands and sand bars. Once the dams and levees were in place, farmers cut down riverside forests in the former floodplain and planted crops.

But the Corps of Engineers is pleased by the compromise between river states. "The (basin association) produced some valuable recommendations that we will take very seriously as we draft our new management plan for the Missouri River," said Larry Cieslik, chief of the Reservoir Control Center for the Corps' Missouri River office, in Omaha, Neb.

The Missouri River Basin Association, which includes a representative from each of the eight states - both Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri - as well as one representative from the basin's nearly 30 Indian tribes, has existed since 1981. Not until last summer's agreement, however, was there any sign of harmony. A sticking point has been reservoir levels. Upper basin states want to keep reservoirs high and stable to protect a thriving fishing and recreation industry. Lower basin states want enough water flowing in their section of the river to float cargo-carrying barges.

Unlike other major navigation rivers, there are no locks and dams on the Missouri's navigation reach. Water levels are kept deep by releases from the river's major dams, four of which are in South Dakota, with one each in North Dakota and Montana. The flows surge through the lower basin in a channel that is more ditch than river. During the dry 1980s, the Corps dramatically lowered upper basin reservoirs, damaging stocked fisheries and recreation businesses. That led to the lawsuits launched by Gov. Janklow, and the suits caused the Corps to re-examine its dam management plan.

The compromise proposed by the basin association would halt navigation on the river and lower the reservoirs more slowly during severe drought. Although Richard Opper hailed this as a breakthrough, Chad Smith said that the protection gained by upper basin states was slight. "The agreement translates into only about five more feet of water in the reservoirs during a drought like the 1980s," explained Smith, before adding that the agreement only deals with managing the river during drought conditions.

"Severe drought comes only twice a century to the basin," said Smith. "The rest of the time, navigation still runs the river."

American Rivers has asked the Corps to adopt a split season for navigation that would allow shippers to use the river. That, said the organization, would protect reservoirs during the busiest recreation season, and also allow river managers to simulate the river's former spring rise to help recreate pre-dam conditions on the river. Among other effects, they hope a spring rise will trigger reproduction in surviving native fish.

Some environmentalists say Missouri navigation is insignificant and should be eliminated. While barges on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers carry more than 300 million and 100 million tons of commercial cargo each year, respectively, Missouri River shippers haul less than 5 million tons per year. Only two shipping companies regularly use the Missouri.

Richard Opper acknowledged that the compromise will never completely satisfy any special interest. "Such is the price of middle ground," he said.

Opper's middle ground, however, may get soggy. The state of Missouri, an adamant defender of barges on the Missouri, is reportedly nervous about the modest concessions made to the upper basin states in the agreement, and is considering backing out. It is also unclear if the compromise will satisfy the Endangered Species Act. Almost certainly, that question will be put before the courts when the Corps releases its plan. Already several years behind schedule, the plan might not be released for another year or two.

Peter Carrels writes from Aberdeen, South Dakota.

This story was supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation on consensus, collaboration and community-based conservation.

You can contact ...

* Larry Cieslik (chief of Missouri River reservoir control), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 402/697-2675;

* Paul Johnston (public affairs), Corps of Engineers, 402/697-2552;

* Richard Opper, MRBA, 406/538-4369;

* Chad Smith, American Rivers, 402/477-7910.

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