Kansas City, Mo Protection of endangered species has become the top priority in managing the Missouri River and likely will prompt the U.S. Corps of Engineers to agree to higher spring releases and lower summer flows, a corps official said Thursday.
"Endangered species have taken the driver's seat in how we will operate the river in the future," Brig. Gen. Carl Strock said Thursday. "It has certainly been elevated in importance."
The corps and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released the service's biological draft opinion Thursday, outlining steps necessary to protect three species the endangered pallid sturgeon, least tern and the threatened piping plover.
Backers of changing the river's flow also contend it will support recreation in states along the upper Missouri, where recreation has become a multimillion-dollar business.
The biological opinion concludes that if the corps does not change dam operations, the three species are likely to become extinct on the Missouri River.
The most controversial proposal is allowing a spring rise in the river's flow an average of every third year and an annual reduced flow in the summer. To achieve those goals, the wildlife service wants water released in the spring from Fort Peck Dam in Montana and flows reduced in the summer from Gavins Point Dam in South Dakota.
The corps has historically managed the river between Montana and eastern Missouri to allow a continuous flow through the summer, in order to support the barge industry and reduce the threat of flooding.
But after working closely with the fish and wildlife service for several months, the corps now has "an absolute commitment to recovery of the listed species," Strock said.
"We understand our obligations in that area and are committed to seeing that through," he said.
The wildlife service says increasing the river's flow in the spring and reducing it in the summer would mimic the flow of the river before it was extensively dammed, which would help the survival of the three species.
Opponents of the so-called "spring pulse" plan say it would ruin the barge industry. Farmers along the river are concerned that higher spring flows would make their fields too wet to plant in the spring and increase the threat of floods.
While agreeing that flow changes are necessary, the two federal agencies still don't agree on how much water should be released from Gavins Point Dam in the summer.
The wildlife service wants to reduce flows to 17,500 cubic feet per second, but navigation interests need at least 25,000 cubic feet per second to operate through the summer.