Missouri River Restrictions Concern Mississippi River States

  • Posted by Dawn Merritt

    After this year’s drought crippled much of the Midwest, priority use of the water in the Missouri River has turned into a hotly contested issue.

    By Paul Lepisto, Regional Conservation Coordinator, IWLA Missouri River Initiative

    The Missouri River basin spans 10 states – from Montana to Missouri – and encompasses one-sixth of the country. More than 12 million people live, work, and recreate in this area, and many of them depend on the river for drinking water, crop irrigation, recreation, and other uses. The river also provides critical habitat for fish and wildlife.  However, demands for hydropower, flood control, and navigation have led to major alterations to the river. Today, one-third of the river has been channelized and another one-third impounded behind giant reservoirs.

    The Corps of Engineers is responsible for flood protection, hydropower, navigation, recreational opportunities, and water supply in the Missouri River basin. On November 23, the Corps began reducing flows from the Missouri River reservoir system due to extreme drought conditions – the water on which residents rely has been in very short supply. Rather than continue sending precious water downstream, the Corps will gradually decrease releases from Gavins Point Dam near Yankton, South Dakota, from 37,500 cubic feet per second down to 12,000 cubic feet per second by December 11. The Corps plans to keep releases at this lower level through February 2013. However, the decreased flow will affect conditions beyond the Missouri River.

    The Missouri River typically provides 60 percent of the water that flows through the Mississippi River’s midsection – from St. Louis to Cairo, Illinois – each year. That amount was significantly higher (78 percent) this year due to extreme drought conditions across the upper Midwest. With severely decreased flows in the coming months, the Mississippi River could drop to its lowest level since 1988 and the midsection could become unnavigable, potentially halting barge traffic. In response, Mississippi River barge operators asked the Obama Administration to declare a state of emergency to ensure water levels remain high enough for navigation.

    The governors of Iowa, Missouri, and Illinois as well as 15 U.S. Senators and 62 members of the U.S. House of Representatives also asked the administration to keep navigation operating on the Mississippi.  In a letter to President Obama, they said that curbing the flow of water to the Mississippi River could lead to the paralysis of $7 billion in commercial trade.They are asking for the release of as much water as needed from Missouri River reservoirs to preserve a 9-foot-deep navigation channel on the Mississippi River.

    Lawmakers from Mississippi River states met with Army Assistant Secretary Jo-Ellen Darcy on November 29. Darcy said that the Corps cannot legally reverse its decision to reduce Missouri River flows. The Corps is bound to manage the Missouri River for its eight congressionally authorized purposes: hydropower, water supply, water quality, fish and wildlife, recreation, irrigation, navigation, and flood control. Benefits for the Mississippi River are incidental.

    Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer asked the White House to reject demands for more releases from Missouri River reservoirs. Schweitzer says that sending more water down the Missouri would be a "knee-jerk, illegal reaction" to the problems on the Mississippi. In a letter to President Obama, Schweitzer said such a move would undermine the Corps’ ability to manage the Missouri River for the long term.

    South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard, U.S. Senators Tim Johnson and John Thune, and U.S. Congresswoman Kristi Noem joined governors and members of Congress from upstream states in opposing any increase of flows from Missouri River dams to aid barge traffic on the Mississippi River. The group sent a letter to President Obama, Army Assistant Secretary Darcy, and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator William Fugate requesting that the Corps not increase flows from the Missouri River reservoirs. The group argues that the Corps does not have the legal authority to release Missouri River reservoir water to aid Mississippi River navigation and that the President’s emergency declaration authority does not extend to economic assistance.

    The Corps intends to keep the Mississippi River open for navigation as long as possible through continued dredging and by removing underwater rock formations near Thebes, Illinois (an area too rocky for dredging).However, Izaak Walton League Upper Mississippi River Coordinator Olivia Dorothy reports that Thebes Gap provides very unique fish and wildlife habitat and the Corps has not released an Environmental Assessment of rock blasting in the area. In addition, rock blasting is scheduled to take place in February and March 2013 in anticipation of continued drought conditions and need for assistance to maintain navigation channels next year. The League and partnergroups in the region are demanding that the Corps complete an Environmental Assessment – consistent with federal law – to prevent damage to this unique environment.

    The Corps expects the Missouri River reservoir system to begin the 2013 runoff season March 1 about 8 million acre feet below its usual base level. (An acre foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land one foot deep.) The largest three reservoirs on the Missouri River – Fort Peck, Sakakawea, and Oahe– are expected to be 10 to 12 feet below their desired levels next spring. These low water levels will affect fish and wildlife habitat, game and forage fish reproduction, recreational access, and American Indian cultural sites.

    South Dakota state climatologist Dennis Todey reports that the period from August to October 2012 was the driest ever recorded in 118 years of record keeping in Nebraska and the fourth driest ever in South Dakota. Drought conditions are likely to persist through February, and any recovery is not expected until spring at the earliest. Based on current forecasts, the Corps expects to decrease flows for the first half of the 2013 Missouri River navigation season as well. (The actual flow level will be set March 15 based on reservoir storage.)

    The Izaak Walton League supports the Corps’ position to conserve water in the Missouri River reservoirs – water that is needed for human needs as well as fish and wildlife. Stay tuned. This situation is changing almost daily. 

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