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News from the Missouri River Initiative: September 2022

Paul Lepisto
Sunset on the Missouri 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 September.

Clean Water Act At Risk in Upcoming Supreme Court Case

Next week, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hear Sackett v. EPA as one of their first cases in the new term. Michael and Chantell Sackett have asked the Court to rule on whether wetlands on their Idaho property are "waters of the United States" (WOTUS) and protected by the Clean Water Act (CWA). The Sacketts are bringing a new two-part legal test for determining which of the nation’s wetlands and small streams should be protected under the 1972 CWA.

This case potentially will have huge ramifications for the Missouri River. Many of the river’s tributaries begin as small intermittent and ephemeral streams, especially in the western basin. Those streams could lose CWA protection if the Court rules for the Sacketts.

The case could also have major impacts to wetlands adjacent to the Missouri and across the Prairie Pothole Region. If these waterbodies lose CWA protection, they could be polluted, drained or filled. This would lead to degraded water for 12 million people that get their drinking water from the Missouri River, and it would impact the world-class recreation these waters provide.

The League believes the Sacketts' proposal moves far from what Congress intended when the CWA was passed, and it ignores the science behind protecting water quality across the country. The League and six other organizations filed an amicus brief with the Court, describing the impact this legal challenge would have on our natural resources, water quality, fish and wildlife, and outdoor recreation.

The League has been fending off attacks like this for years. Read one of our blogs on the importance of protecting small streams and wetlands.  Then check out what South Dakota Public Broadcasting said this week about how the case could affect the Prairie Potholes and countless other waterways in the region.

Drought Expands With Little Relief in Sight

Drought conditions are spreading across the Missouri River basin. Warm, dry weather resulted in below-average runoff into the Missouri River system. That prompted the Corps of Engineers to lower the annual upper basin runoff forecast to 20.2 million acre-feet (MAF), 78 percent of average. The Corps expects below-average inflows the rest of this year and they continue to implement water conservation measures.

The National Drought Mitigation Center reports that 74 percent of the basin is in some level of drought, with seven percent having extreme or exceptional drought conditions, the highest ranking. Nebraska had the second-driest August in 128 years. Currently many areas of the basin are experiencing drought as bad as, or even worse than, what was seen in 2012.

The extended forecasts have the drought intensifying through November. Impacts include lower yields, stressed pastures, and less forage and water for livestock. An increasing wildfire risk won’t diminish unless and until the basin receives widespread snow cover. Recreation is impacted as lake levels fall across the region; agencies are struggling to maintain boat access.

Another La Niña is expected to influence our weather again this fall and winter. This will be only the third time that three consecutive La Niñas have occurred since tracking began. A La Niña usually brings cooler winter temperatures to the Midwest. La Nina’s influence can result in heavy snow late in the winter, though forecasters say snow is unlikely to “fix” the drought. Plentiful spring rains are needed to end the drought conditions and recharge dry soils.

Corps Will Host Informational Meetings

Basin conditions, expected runoff, and a look at next year’s reservoir operational plans will be the key topics for the Corps’ fall meetings next month. Corps staff will hold seven meetings October 24-28 across the basin. The meetings in the tri-state area include:

  • October 25, Fort Pierre, 10:00 a.m. Central – Casey Tibbs Conference Center
  • October 25, Sioux City, 4:00 p.m. Central – Betty Strong Encounter Center
  • October 26, Nebraska City, 6:00 p.m. Central - Steinhart Lodge

I’ll attend the Fort Pierre meeting, and I will submit comments on the Corps’ Draft Annual Operating Plan (AOP) and the 2023 management plan for the reservoir system.

League Volunteers Engage Kids at Outdoor Expo

The League had a booth at the Missouri River Outdoor Expo in Ponca, NE, September 17-18. Ten members of the Nebraska Division and I helped kids (and adults) build over 600 bird feeders out of plastic bottles. We also handed out copies of Outdoor America, youth activity books, reusable League tote bags, and information on how to prevent spreading invasive species.

The 17th expo featured 100 hands-on activities; it's one of the largest free outdoor expos in the Midwest. My thanks to members of the Grand Island and Fremont chapters for their hard work to make this event a success.

Learn more about the expo.

League Supports Project to Address Erosion of Tribal Lands

The League submitted comments to the Corps of Engineers on a Draft Feasibility Report and Integrated Environmental Assessment for a proposed ecosystem restoration project on the Lower Brule Reservation in central South Dakota. This project would be done through the Tribal Partnership Program, which is part of the 2000 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA).

The manmade changes on the Missouri River are severely impacting Lower Brule Sioux Tribal lands. Riparian forests were permanently flooded, and connected wetlands were lost when dams formed Lake Sharpe and Lake Francis Case. Those areas once provided critical year-round wildlife habitat, especially during severe winters. The proposed project seeks to preserve historically significant cultural resources while adding 60 acres of cottonwood forest and 17.7 acres of connected wetlands.

Loss of Tribal lands is an ongoing problem due to erosion on Lake Sharpe. 450 acres are threatened by erosion, in addition to the more than 2,000 acres that have already disappeared. We urged the Corps to continue working with the Lower Brule Sioux, the Missouri Sedimentation Action Coalition, other agencies, and stakeholders on ways to reduce erosion and sediment accumulation.

The League supported the completion of the study and the analyses for the feasibility report and environmental assessment. This process will assess the threats to and loss of natural resources, as well as the degradation of habitat, linked to the construction and ongoing operation of this project.

Read our comments.

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