News from the Missouri River Initiative: August 2023

Paul Lepisto
River afternoon - 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.

Changes Coming to Pallid Recovery Efforts

In a major shift, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said they will develop a new strategy to recover the endangered pallid sturgeon in the Missouri River. The Corps announced this at the Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee (MRRIC) meeting in Kansas City August 22-24.

The Missouri River Recovery Management Plan (MRRMP) called for the construction of twelve projects, known as Interception Rearing Complexes (IRCs), near public land locations between Kansas City and St. Louis. It’s theorized IRCs would provide newly hatched pallids with shallow, slow water areas to get out of the turbulent navigation channel to feed and develop.

Two IRCs were built in 2017. Two proposed sites are currently undergoing public comment and are expected to be constructed next year. The MRRMP stated it would take seven or eight years for IRC sites to fully mature. Monitoring would be done at each site to analyze how it was performing.

The League is disappointed that the IRC experiment will not be completed, with all 12 sites fully evaluated, before the Corps moves on to something else. We will submit comments on the final two proposed project sites in September.

The Corps will enter formal consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and then release a new Biological Assessment (BA). The FWS will issue a Biological Opinion, and the Independent Science Advisory Panel and MRRIC will also review the proposed changes. Opposition from navigation and agricultural interests and members of Missouri’s congressional delegation played a role in this change to pallid sturgeon recovery. The League will remain engaged in this process in the coming months.

Also at the meeting in Kansas City, MRRIC gave initial approval to a recommendation on the Missouri River’s Fish and Wildlife Mitigation Project. The recommendation urges the Corps to seek the funding needed to move ahead on acquiring the land for the project. MRRIC will try to finalize the recommendation with a virtual vote in the next 30 days.

Mitigation is needed to restore a portion of the habitat lost to the construction and ongoing operation of the navigation channel between Sioux City and St. Louis. The Corps is required to acquire over 100,000 additional acres in the historic floodplain from willing sellers for the mitigation project. I’ve represented the League on MRRIC since the committee’s inception in 2008. The next meeting will be in early December in Omaha.

Basin Sees a Variety of Conditions

There’s good and bad news in the Missouri River basin. July runoff above Sioux City was 99 percent of average, except for the Fort Peck reach in Montana, which had only 68 percent of average. With rain in portions of the basin, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers raised the 2023 runoff forecast to 28.5 million acre feet (MAF). That would be 111 percent of average.

Water in the reservoir system peaked at 56.6 MAF on July 22. Warm and dry conditions have reduced inflows, and pool levels are expected to drop for the rest of the year.

Soil moisture improved in some areas in the basin, but drought impacts continue for agriculture, water supply, recreation and tourism. The drought is also raising the risk of wildfires. Meanwhile hot, humid weather raised water temperatures, resulting in fish kills in the Platte and Loup rivers in Nebraska. In Montana, hot conditions forced fishing restrictions as some rivers experienced “historic low flows.”

League Submits Missouri River Flow Comments

Following the devastating 2019 Missouri River flood, the third major flood in the last 30 years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, along with the states of Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri, pledged to “do something different.” The Corps and the states agreed to improve flood resiliency in the lower basin.

Initial ideas for how to improve resiliency included creating additional levee setbacks, buying out frequently flooded properties, reducing man-made “pinch points” along the river, and changing land use regulations. Scientists say another major flood will happen again along the river. Without preventative actions, the lower basin will see the same, or worse, damage.

Read our comment letter.

Izaak Walton League Endowment Awards Grant

The Missouri River Initiative applied for, and received, a $5,400 grant from the Izaak Walton League of America Endowment. At this year’s national convention, the Endowment awarded 22 grants for more than $116,600.

Endowment funds are to be used for conservation, education, and outdoor recreation programs. MRI will use the funding for education and outreach efforts in 2023 and 2024. We thank the Endowment Board for their ongoing support.

2.7 Million Acres Accepted in Conservation Reserve Program Signup

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) accepted 2.7 million acres offered by private landowners in the Conservation Reserve Program Grassland signup. This program allows landowners to continue grazing and haying practices while also providing conservation.

USDA also accepted over 1 million acres of General CRP, and more than 465,800 acres of Continuous CRP this year. Nebraska and South Dakota were two of the top three states, along with Colorado, in accepted signups.

CRP improves water quality, provides wildlife habitat, and sequesters carbon. Landowners can learn more about the CRP program at their local USDA office.

Be Aware of EHD

State wildlife officials are asking you to report any unexplained deaths or illness in deer, antelope, elk and bighorn sheep. Conditions are favorable for epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) in some areas. Warm, dry weather can prompt a hatch of midges, the insect that transmits this disease to big game animals.

EHD does not affect humans, but it can devastate local big game populations. Due to the high fever from the disease, ill or dead animals are often found near water. As you are scouting hunting locations or traveling, be aware of dead or sick big game animals. Report any you see to the closest state fish and game office.

Learn more from the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission; South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks; or the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

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

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