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Archive for Wednesday, September 24, 2003

S.D. governor optimistic about river meeting

September 24, 2003

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— Gov. Mike Rounds said Tuesday he believed a meeting of officials from eight states could find a better way of managing the Missouri River to meet the most important needs of each state.

Rounds, who is host to today's meeting of governors and other officials, said he hoped upstream and downstream states could figure out how to manage the river so each gets water at the most critical time.

South Dakota, North Dakota and Montana want steady or rising water levels in the Missouri River's huge reservoirs in spring months to ensure the shallow-water hatching of fish eggs. If water levels fall and kill the eggs, the fishing industry is hurt for years, Rounds said.

Rounds said downstream states needed water later in the year to extend the navigation season for barges in the Missouri River and also apparently in the Mississippi River below St. Louis, where the two rivers meet. Downstream states also need water to support city drinking supplies, power plants and other uses.

In addition, operation of the Missouri River must comply with federal environmental laws, the South Dakota governor said.

Rounds said he believed the goals of both upstream and downstream states could be met. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the river, has been working for more than a decade to revise its Master Manual, which is a guide for operating the river and its six huge reservoirs.

"I think there's room to take care of most, if not all, of these critical needs," Rounds said.

Wednesday's conference at Dakota Dunes, on the bank of the Missouri River in extreme southeastern South Dakota, will be closed to the public while representatives of the states, federal agencies and environmental groups discuss South Dakota's proposal for changing river management. The officials will talk to reporters later in the day to discuss whether any progress has been made.

Rounds will be joined by Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven, and officials from Kansas, Missouri, Montana and Wyoming. Also attending will be leaders from American Indian tribes and federal officials, including Brig. Gen. William T. Grisoli, commander of the corps' northwestern division.

The governor hopes agreement can be found on some issues this week. Technical experts then could work out solutions to areas of contention, so another summit could be held later this year to approve a compromise plan that could be used to manage the river beginning next year, Rounds said.

Upstream and downstream states have been at odds over management of the river, particularly during the drought years of the late 1980s and the drought in upstream states in recent years.

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius has expressed opposition to a plan to divert water from Kansas reservoirs to assist Missouri barge traffic.

A dozen or so lawsuits have been filed since 1991 in various attempts to get the Corps of Engineers to change the flow of water. The federal court system in July transferred six lawsuits involving the Missouri River to a federal judge in Minnesota. That judge has urged states to resolve their differences out of court.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also issued a biological opinion in 2000 that would require a more natural flow downstream of the lowest dam, with heavier water releases in the spring and lighter releases in the summer. The agency, which oversees the federal endangered species law, said the changes were needed to protect the piping plover, interior least tern and pallid sturgeon.

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