The US Fish and Wildlife Service and the US Army Corps of Engineers have announced their Endangered Species Act consultation regarding operation of the Missouri River dams and reservoirs, concluding that, without urgent action, the continued existence of the endangered pallid sturgeon and least tern and the threatened piping plover are in doubt.

The two agencies have put forward joint proposals – a biological opinion – which they say will provide protection for the species, returning the Missouri to a more natural river system, whilst allowing continued operation of riverine projects. But there is already talk of possibly shying away from the necessary action. “The Corps is absolutely committed to its role in recovery of the listed species, but we also have an obligation to support other project purposes,” said Brigadeer General Carl Strock, Northwestern Division Engineer.

“Our initial assessment is that elements of the biological opinion (the proposals) slightly increase the risk of flooding and are detrimental to navigation. It is possible that the Corps will propose an alternative that meets the biological objectives with reduced impacts in other areas,” he said. The proposals could, however, adversely impact river navigation for about three weeks a year.

“The Missouri River is an incredibly important resource, serving many needs for many people,” said William Hartwig, Regional Director for the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Great Lakes-Big Rivers Region. “We must recognise, as well, the needs of the natural resources of the river, particularly imperilled species, and do our best in managing the Missouri to ensure their survival.”

The proposals to save the species are:

  • implementation of a spring dam release on average every third year and an annual summer drawdown to restore spawning areas for fish and to maintain and develop sandbar habitat and the associated shallow, slow water habitat needed by birds and fish. This measure is expected to especially benefit the pallid sturgeon;
  • a portion of the habitat will be restored, enhanced, and conserved in riverine sections that will benefit the listed birds and fish. Habitat restoration goals are 20-30 acres of shallow water (less than 5 feet deep, less than 2.5 ft/sec. velocity) per mile;
  • implementation of an adaptive management strategy in response to new information and to changing environmental conditions to benefit the species, including the establishment of an interagency team to co-ordinate and guide development and implementation of a monitoring programme;
  • both agencies will work to increase pallid sturgeon propagation and augmentation efforts, while habitat and hydrology improvements are being implemented. This short-term action will, they say, ensure genetic integrity and prevent extinction of existing pallid sturgeon populations.

The study cautioned, however, that opening the dams could slightly increase the risk of flooding farms near the river and may be “detrimental to navigation” by barges and other craft.

“Over the next few months we will consult with impacted tribal governments, states, and other regional stakeholders to craft the details of our implementation plan,” said General Strock. Thus, shippers, grain handlers, environmentalists and recreational boaters will have a say in the master plan which will be submitted in February. The Corps is also currently revising its Missouri River water control guide used to determine when to release water from local dams, signifying the first reforms the agency has proposed to protect the river’s species.

Environmentalists have applauded the plan. “This opinion clearly lays out what needs to be changed on the Missouri river to restore natural flow and avoid extinction,” Chad Smith of American Rivers said. “The Corps has a clear window of opportunity to meet the modern needs of the Missouri River basin. They must take that opportunity for the good of the river.”

The Missouri River has also been a battleground between Congress and the Clinton administration. In October, Clinton vetoed an annual spending bill for energy and water programmes over Congressmen’s objection to raising the artificially lowered spring flow to benefit wildlife with a more natural seasonal flow (see related story).

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