News from the Missouri River Initiative: June 2023

Paul Lepisto
River overlook - 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 June.

Appeals Court Upholds Ruling in Missouri River Flooding Case

A U.S. Court of Appeals has upheld a lower court ruling that the federal government must pay affected landowners for losses suffered from floods along the Missouri River. And the appeals court increased the damages the government is responsible for: now those damages include crops, farm equipment, and buildings lost in floods. The court ruled federal government actions contributed to the record flood of 2011.

Nearly 400 landowners, from the Dakotas to Missouri, sued the federal government for damages from repeated flooding that happened since 2007. The suit claimed the floods occurred after the Army Corps of Engineers changed management of the Missouri River to protect the endangered pallid sturgeon and the threatened piping plover. The landowners said the change deprived them of their land, resulting in an uncompensated taking, a violation of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution.

The Corps claims the management changes were needed to comply with the Endangered Species Act and a 1986 requirement to protect fish and wildlife. The government is facing damages from the floods, including an estimated $2 billion in losses from 2011 alone. The federal government is expected to appeal this ruling to the Supreme Court.

Basin Continues to Battle Drought

Above-average temperatures across the upper Missouri River basin resulted in a very rapid melt of this year’s mountain snowpack. That in turn produced above-average runoff into the reservoir system in May.

Now, with no more snowmelt in the basin, the Corps of Engineers says widespread, significant rains are needed to get runoff into the system. The Corps predicts the upper basin runoff will be 26.8 million acre feet (MAF), or 104 percent of average.

Rain has provided a bit of relief in parts of the basin, but drought conditions exist in every state, with the driest areas in Nebraska and Kansas. Missing rains in May and June make it difficult for the basin to “catch up” the rest of the year.

The last three years has been one of the driest three-year periods in the region in 128 years of record. Learn more.

League Installs Recycling Bins for Fishing Line

The League used grant funding from the Gilchrist Foundation in Sioux City to construct and install 12 fishing line bins near Yankton. There were already a few bins in the area, but we felt they weren't adequate for the number of anglers that fish this reach of the Missouri River.

The new bins, made from six-inch PVC pipe, were placed in highly visible locations. This will help anglers properly dispose of used line and keep it out of the river.

It’s estimated that monofilament takes over 600 years to decompose. The new bins will help prevent injuries, or a painful death, to wildlife that could get entangled in improperly discarded line. The collected line will be recycled.

My thanks to Fran Serr of the Izaak Walton League's Yankton Chapter for this idea and for his tremendous help in building and installing the bins along the river in Nebraska and South Dakota.

Homestead Day Is a Big Success

Homestead Day was held June 10 at Pierson Ranch Recreation Area near Yankton. The event provided a way for families to participate in historical activities, exhibits, and demonstrations. Attendees also saw a fascinating birds of prey presentation by Regalia International.

We worked with South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks; National Park Service; Fish and Wildlife Service, and other organizations to coordinate the event. About 500 people attended and had a great time.

League Comments on Black Hills Mining Proposal

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) proposed a ban on new mining activities in an area of the Black Hills National Forest near Rapid City. The ban would include USFS land near Pactola Reservoir and areas of the Rapid Creek watershed.

The proposal resulted from an exploration project that was proposed near Pactola. USFS gave draft approval to the exploration plan, but in the objection period that followed the draft approval, USFS and BLM announced this ban on new mining in the area. The reasons for the ban included impacts to water quality, as well as potential damage to cultural and natural resources resulting from the exploration project.

Pactola and Rapid Creek provide drinking water for Rapid City, Box Elder, Ellsworth Air Force Base, Tribes, and ranches. The final decision on the exploration plan and the proposed mineral ban will be made by the Secretary of the Interior.

Mining has occurred in the Black Hills since the 1870s. Previous operations resulted in extensive water pollution. Bankruptcies and abandoned mines led to Environmental Protection Agency superfund cleanups.

Read the League’s comment letter.

League Questions Proposed Change to Wetland Easements

The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) proposed new regulations regarding installation of drain tile on land with a wetland easement. The proposed regulations would codify the process of how FWS establishes drain tile setbacks within wetland easement contracts. FWS would establish a setback distance based on the best available science, soil, tile diameter and depth, and topography to ensure no drainage of the protected wetland.

Wetland easements are voluntary agreements between FWS and landowners. There are over 28,000 wetland easements in the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR). The PPR is the most important area for waterfowl and other wildlife, as it produces up to 75 percent of the ducks in North America annually. The small wetlands across the PPR also improve water quality, reduce flooding, and provide recreational opportunities.

In our comments we questioned the need for this proposal and instead urged the continuation of the existing FWS policy to protect wetlands under easement from drainage and destruction. The recent Sackett Supreme Court ruling puts over half of the nation’s remaining wetlands at great risk. We believe wetlands under an easement should be completely protected.

Read our comments.

Next Missouri River Cleanup Is Approaching

The Pierre-Fort Pierre Missouri River Cleanup will be held on Wednesday, July 12 from 5-8 PM. It will be based out of Downs Marina in Pierre. In 12 previous cleanups, more than 800 volunteers have removed over 26 tons of trash from along the river in the Pierre-Fort Pierre area.

Boats, pontoons, trucks and trailers are needed. There are ways to help even if you can’t pick up trash. For more information email me at or call 605-220-1219.

The cleanup is coordinated by the League; SD Game, Fish, and Parks; Fish and Wildlife Service; Corps of Engineers; and the cities of Pierre and Fort Pierre. Area businesses provide invaluable additional assistance. This will be the third Missouri River cleanup the League has participated in this year, following earlier efforts in May in Yankton and Omaha/Council Bluffs.

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Top photo: A view over the Missouri River. Photo credits: Paul Lepisto.

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