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News from the Missouri River Initiative: November 2022

Paul Lepisto
Sun 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 November.

Updates on Habitat Restoration and Flood Control

It was a busy month for the Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee (MRRIC). At a meeting in Omaha, the committee received updates on methods to reduce lower river flooding. One study is exploring ways to eliminate some of the artificially narrow places in the river, also known as pinch points. Currently over 90 pinch points increase flooding during high flows. Levee setbacks at these locations would reduce flood damages while providing more habitat and recreational opportunities in these areas.

Two weeks prior to the MRRIC meeting, the Army Corps of Engineers held a virtual fall science meeting. Scientists shared preliminary results from this year’s research, monitoring and modeling. The forum enabled discussions on recovery efforts for the river's two federally listed species: the pallid sturgeon and piping plover. The information from the science meeting will be summarized in the annual Adaptive Management Compliance Report.

At the Omaha meeting MRRIC members heard updates on the lower river that included plans to build two Interception Rearing Complexes (IRCs). IRCs provide critical habitat for young pallid sturgeon. The river’s Biological Opinion (BiOp) calls for two IRCs to be constructed each year until 12 are in place. Two IRCs were built in 2017 but, due to financial and legislative constraints, none have been constructed since. Through MRRIC, the Corps initiated a way to identify locations that meet pallid requirements and are acceptable to stakeholders. An Environmental Assessment (EA) on two new sites will be released in January. The Corps hopes to construct two IRCs in 2024.

For the upper river, the Corps said no test flows will be done from Fort Peck Dam in Montana next spring due to lack of water. The BiOp calls for Fort Peck test flows to see if the higher water levels will attract pallid sturgeon to spawn below the dam. The Corps will postpone the experiment until a year with sufficient upper basin runoff to run the test flow.

Despite reduced monitoring due to the lack of funding, a record number of adult piping plovers were observed on the river this year. The Fish and Wildlife Service will release a new Biological Report next spring, to be followed by a new draft piping plover recovery plan. A population study will be conducted in 2025; that could result in a change in the piping plover’s listed status.

Meanwhile, Congress has authorized the Corps to mitigate manmade changes on the river. The Corps must acquire 166,750 acres between Sioux City and St. Louis to replace a portion of the 522,000 acres of habitat lost to the construction and operation of the Bank Stabilization and Navigation Project. So far the Corps has acquired about 40 percent of the mitigation acreage. Funding cuts eliminated mitigation progress in recent years; the last land purchase occurred in 2017. It's encouraging to have mitigation discussed again.

MRRIC provides guidance to the Army Corps of Engineers and the Fish and Wildlife Service on river habitat restoration. With budget cuts to the Missouri River Recovery Program (MRRP), the Omaha meeting was MRRIC's only in-person gathering of 2022. I have represented the League on MRRIC since the committee was formed in 2008. Learn more.

League Comments on 2023 River Operating Plan

The Izaak Walton League submitted comments on the Army Corp's 2023 Draft Annual Operating Plan (AOP) for the Missouri River Reservoir System. The Corps outlines its operation plans each year based on the amount of runoff the system may receive.

The ongoing drought will be a major factor in the operation of the system next year. Recreational access is expected to be an issue again in 2023. The draft AOP calls for levels in Oahe and Fort Peck to rise next spring if enough runoff is available. The rise would boost forage and game fish production.

The final AOP is expected by the end of the year. Read the League’s comments or learn more about the AOP.

Basin Continues to Battle Drought

Runoff into the Missouri River continues to be below average. About 90 percent of the basin is classified as abnormally dry or in drought, and that’s expected to expand even more next year.

The 2022 runoff forecast is 19.4 million acre feet (maf), or 76 percent of average. Reservoir storage is more than 9 maf lower than the Corps would like to have it this time of year. The three large reservoirs – Fort Peck, Sakakawea and Oahe – may be 12 to 15 feet below the base of the flood control zone by the start of the runoff season on March 1.

The Corps will run minimum releases from Gavins Point Dam this winter to conserve water. Levels on the Missouri typically decline this time of year, but usually not to this extent. Learn more about the drought.

South Dakota Ikes Support Fishing Access Project

The Izaak Walton League's South Dakota Division supported a plan to improve angling access on some dams on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands (FPNG). The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) plans to install four earthen fishing pods and six boat ramps, plus they will improve road access to several dams.

The 116,000-acre FPNG is a popular location for angling and hunting. Anglers have sought improved access to the dams for years. The FPNG reservoirs hold a variety of species and offer year-round angling opportunities.

Read the Division’s comments.

South Dakota Division Celebrates Habitat Heroes

For the 70th year, the League’s South Dakota Division celebrated efforts by landowners to improve and protect wildlife habitat. Four landowners – from Kingsbury, Faulk, Edmunds and Codington counties – were recognized for their work, including the use of conservation programs.

The landowners received commemorative plaques, and the organizations that submitted the nominations each got a certificate of appreciation from the Division. Quality habitat is disappearing at an alarming rate across South Dakota. The Division believes this award identifies landowners that realize the many benefits of enhancing and conserving habitat on their land.

Thanks to Doug Alvine from the Kampeska Chapter in Watertown for all he did in the awards process.

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Top photo: Sun reflecting off the Missouri River. Photo credits: Paul Lepisto.