News from the Missouri River Initiative: January 2023

Paul Lepisto
Cattails in the snow - 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 January.

Basin Receives Some Much-Needed Moisture

Winter storms hit portions of the Missouri River basin again this month and cold temperatures produced ice jams in Nebraska and Iowa (see photo above). The jams reduced flows prompting temporary water restrictions in some locations. The mountain snowpack is above average and, for the first time in several years, the plains snowpack is also above average. North Dakota had the wettest and South Dakota the second wettest December in 128 years in what is typically the driest time of the year.

This winter some areas have received up to 4 times the average precipitation in the last 60 days. The snow water equivalent (swe) ranges from 2 to 6 inches. This year’s frost depth may limit the amount of infiltration when the snow melts. The Corps of Engineers is estimating that the 2023 upper basin runoff will be 20.8-million-acre feet (maf), or 81% of average.

Water stored in the reservoirs may be more than 10 maf below the system’s flood control zone at the start of the 2023 runoff season March 1. To conserve water the Corps is only running minimum releases to meet the needs of downstream intakes. Last year’s upper basin runoff totaled 19.3 maf making 2022 the 30th lowest runoff year on record, Nebraska had the 4th driest year in 128 years. More moisture is needed to alleviate the dry conditions. For the latest information go to:

Study Plan Filed for Proposed Energy Project

The Western Minnesota Municipal Power Agency (WMMPA) held a virtual meeting January 9-11 to review the Proposed Study Plan (PSP) for the Gregory County Pumped Storage Project (GCPSP). If approved, the GCPSP would take water out of Lake Francis Case, one of the Missouri River reservoirs, near Platte, SD. The pumped water would be temporarily stored in a constructed reservoir on a bluff above the lake then released back into the river through a powerhouse to generate hydropower.

The PSP must be approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). If it is then a series of environmental, social, and economic studies will be conducted in the next two years to evaluate the potential impacts of the project. The League submitted comments on what the studies should consider, and we’ll submit comments on the PSP in early March. The timeline for the project has the sponsors applying for a license from FERC in February 2026. If approved a lengthy construction process would begin, the project would not be on-line until 2035. You can see the PSP at:

SD Division Comments on AIS Plan

Aquatic invasive species continue to spread across the Midwest. The South Dakota Division submitted comments to South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks on their new AIS plan. The Division supported increased outreach and education efforts to teach everyone to always Clean, Drain, and Dry when you come off the water. The Division backed additional research including how invasive species, especially zebra mussels, affect fish growth and reproduction.

The Division urged GFP to enforce existing AIS regulations and asked for an annual review of AIS regulations to determine their effectiveness. Once introduced, AIS are impossible to eradicate. The Division urged the hiring of qualified individuals for all AIS positions and for the development of a funding mechanism to combat the spread of AIS. You can read the Division’s letter at:

2023 Lake Oahe and Sharpe Fishing Outlook

The South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks (GFP) hosted three public meetings on the fish populations in Lake Oahe, a popular Missouri River reservoir in late January. I attended the Pierre meeting January 24, that also included information on Lake Sharpe. GFP Fisheries staff provided history, population trends and upcoming management plans for the two lakes. The GFP’s annual surveys evaluate fish growth rates, and an estimate of game and forage fish in both reservoirs. The latest research indicated a slightly declining walleye population in the upper half of Oahe and an increase in walleyes in the lower end of the reservoir.

Oahe is still recovering from the 2011 Missouri River flood where hundreds of millions of rainbow smelt were flushed out during record high releases. That crucial forage species has yet to rebound from that dramatic decline. GFP plans to stock walleye fingerlings and adult gizzard shad into Oahe this year to bolster the population with hopes of improving future angling opportunities.

Surveys on Lake Sharpe showed the 2nd highest walleye numbers in the last 6 years. This includes lots of 10–14-inch walleyes, with many those fish expected to reach 15 inches this year. Oahe and Sharpe are extremely popular with hundreds of thousands of resident and nonresident anglers who enjoy spending time on the lakes each year.

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Top photo: Cattails in the snow. Photo credits: Paul Lepisto.

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