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News from the Missouri River Initiative: August 2022

Paul Lepisto
Summer river - credit Paul Lepisto

The "Mighty Mo," America's longest river, flows past communities in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri – plus it receives water from Wyoming, Colorado, and Minnesota. The Izaak Walton League is working with partners throughout the region to make sure this amazing waterway stays healthy. Here's what happened along the river in August.

Committee Approves Recommendation to Increase Pallid Sturgeon Habitat

A recommendation supporting additional pallid sturgeon habitat in the lower Missouri River received final approval from the Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee (MRRIC) August 8. The recommendation identifies two new habitat sites for the endangered pallid sturgeon. In a virtual meeting, MRRIC members formally agreed to send the recommendation to the Corps of Engineers.

Later this fall, the Corps will release a draft Environmental Assessment, which will be open for public comment. They’ll hold public meetings and ask Tribes and other interested stakeholders for input on the proposed habitat locations.

The Corps plans to construct Interception Rearing Complexes (IRCs) at the sites next year. An IRC creates slow, shallow water habitat for newly hatched pallids. That allows the young fish to get out of the turbulent navigation channel and find safer places to feed and develop. Biologists theorize that without enough slow water, juvenile pallids don't survive their first year.

Two IRCs have been constructed. Ten more need to be built below Kansas City. The Corps needs to evaluate the benefits to pallids and determine if more IRCs should be constructed.

The approved recommendation also supports continued monitoring of all IRC sites. The research will help advance understanding of IRCs and enable the Corps and the Fish and Wildlife Service to continue to improve IRC implementation.

Learn more about the Missouri River Recovery Program.

Runoff Increases But Remains Below Average

Heavy rains fell in isolated areas of the Missouri River basin this month, increasing runoff into the reservoir system. The precipitation raised the upper basin runoff forecast to 20.6 million acre feet. That would be 80 percent of the long-term average. The water stored in the reservoirs peaked on July 20, and reservoir levels are now expected to decline for the rest of this year.

Hot, dry conditions early this month intensified the drought in Nebraska, Iowa, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Missouri. Soil moisture levels remain low across most of the basin.

Drought conditions are widespread. Over 40 percent of the country is in drought; over 130 million Americans are impacted. The drought in the western U.S. has lasted for more than two decades and has produced the driest conditions in over 1,200 years.

Extended outlooks have the drought expanding into this fall. The lack of widespread precipitation has impacted crops and rangeland conditions, and it has increased the risk of wildfires. The Corps and upper basin states are working to maintain access with temporary boat ramp sites on Fort Peck, Sakakawea, and Oahe.

Get the latest on the drought.

Corps Shares Sediment Plan Information

The Corps of Engineers presented preliminary cost estimates for several ways to reduce sediment in Lewis and Clark Lake. Board members of the Missouri Sedimentation Action Coalition, including me, learned about the estimates in a webinar August 9.

The Corps and MSAC are developing a sediment management plan for Lewis and Clark Lake, which has already lost over 30 percent of its storage capacity due to sediment accumulation. When approved, the plan will be the first of its kind for the Corps, which has over 400 water projects across the country.

Scientists will continue evaluating methods to deal with sediment in Lewis and Clark Lake. Sediment is impacting recreation, water intakes, hydropower and other uses.

More information on the management plan will come out in late September, with the final report on Phase 2 of the plan due in November. Learn more.

Grassland Group Plans Conservation Strategy

The Northern Great Plains Joint Venture, a partnership of federal and state agencies and nongovernmental organizations, works to protect, enhance, and restore grassland, wetland, and riparian habitats in the Dakotas, Montana, and Wyoming. I attended their meeting August 2-3 in Pierre.

The Joint Venture wants to increase grassland bird populations – which have declined by 53 percent since 1970 – while improving water quality and soil health. They would accomplish this through conservation programs that benefit a landowner’s bottom line.

The group discussed the urgent need for more quality grassland habitat, strategies for controlling invasive tree species on grasslands, and the importance of reducing erosion. In the states where the group works, grasslands are being converted to row crop agriculture and urban development at a rate of more than 285,000 acres a year. That's far outpacing current conservation measures. There has also been a 57 percent decline in Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres in the four states since the program’s acreage peaked in 2007.

The Joint Venture wants to establish effective communication with landowners on how they can profitably conserve these valuable habitats. The upcoming 2023 Farm Bill and the recently introduced North American Grassland Conservation Act could provide urgently needed funding for this effort.

Learn more about the Northern Great Plains Joint Venture.

Help Needed at Upcoming Expo

The 17th Missouri River Outdoor Expo is slated for September 17-18 in Ponca State Park near Ponca, NE. The League will again have a booth at the expo, as one of over 90 scheduled hands-on activities.

This is the largest free outdoor expo in the Midwest, attracting thousands of visitors each year. We’ll help kids and adults build birdfeeders out of plastic bottles. We’ll also hand out information on the League and talk with people about conservation and resource issues.

If you want to come to the expo and help in the Ikes’ booth, email me at plepisto@iwla.org for more information.

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Top photo: A summer day on the Missouri River. Photo credits: Paul Lepisto.