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Archive for Thursday, November 8, 2001

Missouri River’s flow under fire

Senators agree change is needed, disagree on course of action

November 8, 2001

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— The Missouri Natural Resources director and both of the state's U.S. senators spoke out Tuesday night against proposed changes in way the Army Corps of Engineers manages the flow of the Missouri River.

But a North Dakota official said change is long overdue.

The testimony came at a Corps hearing on a revised environmental impact statement about its water management plan, the ninth in a series that began last month in Montana and winds up Nov. 15 in New Orleans.

The corps has proposed six alternatives, including maintaining the present system, and plans to recommend its preference next May after reviewing testimony from the hearings and additional public comment. Any changes in the river's management would take effect in March 2003.

Stephen Mahfood, the Missouri Natural Resources chief, said the state is committed to improving the environmental health of the river.

"However, we believe that there are ways to achieve these benefits while still protecting, and possibly enhancing, the lives and livelihoods of the Missourians who live on or near the banks of the Missouri River," he said.

Ebb and flow system

Among the proposals is a controversial switch to a seasonal ebb and flow system which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife said is the only way to save a fish, the pallid sturgeon, and two birds, the least tern and piping plover, all verging on extinction.

It would involve releasing more water from upstream dams every third spring, with much lower water levels in the summer. The plan is supported by environmentalists as well as upstream recreation interests who want to keep higher water level in the reservoirs created by the six dams on the river.

Mahfood said Missouri was especially concerned about plans that would increase total water storage in the upstream lakes. He said there were apprehensions whether that would significantly reduce the corps' ability to manage the river for the benefit of everybody in the huge basin area.

"Missouri has further concerns that these changes to total system storage could eventually restrict the use of water by downstream states and thus be detrimental to the future welfare of Missourians," Mahfood said. "Missouri strongly opposes any plan that would reduce the amount of usable water released to downstream states."

He also cited concern that lower summer flows could hurt barge transportation, and that spring rises would affect river-bottom farmers.

Public comment sought

Sen. Kit Bond, in a statement read by an aide, requested an extension of the time for public comment and an additional hearing in Missouri after all data are gathered and reviewed.

"I believe that government should protect people from flooding, not cause floods," said Bond, R-Mo. "It should produce more efficient transportation options, not railroad monopolies, and it should continue the clean production of hydropower, not discourage it."

Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan, in a statement also read by an aide, recalled the billions dollars in damage caused in Missouri by the 1993 floods and expressed concern about a plan that she said could lead to additional flooding.

"This year we saw communities up and down the river again battling floodwaters," Carnahan said. "It astounds me that any government agency, whether it be the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the Corps of Engineers, would contemplate an action that would put Missourians and residents of other downstream states at risk of even more flooding."

Carnahan said that while she supports protecting endangered species, "I firmly believe that we must factor in the hardships that we are placing on our citizens as well."

And she said she wasn't convinced the changes would actual accomplish the goals of protecting endangered species.

Anything is an improvement

But North Dakota's state engineer, Dale Frink, said any of the five alternatives in the impact statement draft are an improvement over the current management plan.

"The Missouri River Master Manual must be changed to meet the contemporary needs of the basin, and the time for this change is far past due," Frink said.

He said that promises were made when the dams were authorized by Congress, starting in the 1930s, regarding water development and use. He said a 1944 flood control measure said use of water from the reservoirs for navigation shall not conflict with any beneficial use in western states.

"Given these facts, perhaps you can understand why we become slightly annoyed when we hear officials from the state of Missouri claim it is all 'their' water," Frink said.

The hearing was the second in Missouri, following one last week in St. Joseph. Another was Wednesday night in Jefferson City, and one is planned for Tuesday in St. Louis.

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