MISSOURI RIVER BASIN


The release of an environmental impact statement on the operation of six dams along the Missouri River has resparked a 12-year-old debate on how to best use the waterway.


During the late 1980s, a long drought created hard times for fish and farmers, prompting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to re-evaluate the way it operates the dams. Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife recommended that one dam be used to create a high spring rise and summer ebb to mimic the river's pre-dammed pattern; that would help the endangered pallid sturgeon spawn (HCN, 9/14/98: Salvo over salmon) and provide habitat for the endangered least tern and piping plover. This spring, it seemed likely that the Corps would formally endorse the plan.


But in late August, when the revised draft EIS was released, the Corps backed off, saying that it wanted to leave all the options open for comment.


"This way, people could evaluate impacts with all of (the alternatives)," says Paul Johnston, a spokesman for the Corps. "It'll allow people to study, cuss and discuss."


Environmental groups don't see it that way.


"This is a result of eleventh-hour political arm twisting," says Eric Eckl of the non-profit American Rivers. "It's a sign of political interference and bureaucratic foot-dragging."


The Fish and Wildlife Service was also disappointed.


"(We) were hopeful that the Corps would put out the preferred alternative," says Mike Olson, the agency's Missouri River coordinator, "but biology and politics can get inextricably linked."


Comments on the EIS will be accepted until February 2002.