News from the Missouri River Initiative: December 2023

Paul Lepisto
Ice 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 December.

River Recovery Committee Meets

The Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee (MRRIC) observed its 15th anniversary in Omaha at a meeting on December 5-7. MRRIC heard about the limited re-consultation between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Corps is developing a new Biological Assessment (BA) for the endangered pallid sturgeon that will have a different approach for pallid recovery in the lower basin. The BA will be released next year.

MRRIC also learned about upper basin pallid recovery actions including the fish’s use of the Intake Dam bypass channel on the Yellowstone River in northeastern Montana. The Corps is also exploring conducting a test flow from Fort Peck Dam next spring if conditions allow. If the test is run, the flow would be evaluated to see if it attracts, retains and encourages pallid spawning below the dam.

For the threatened piping plover, the committee was informed about a remote monitoring system that will estimate habitat abundance and the number of plovers in the prairie pothole region in North and South Dakota. The Corps will begin a new piping plover monitoring pilot project in 2024.

A lengthy discussion was held on land management practices for the Bank Stabilization and Navigation Project’s (BSNP) Fish and Wildlife (F&W) Mitigation Project in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska. The League and other MRRIC members support mitigation efforts to increase habitat and recreation and to create win-win solutions for the lower basin.

The committee is also working on ways to incorporate Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge (ITEK) into new studies and future management actions. The goal is to develop a MRRIC Tribal Policy on ITEK. Including ITEK is a new directive to federal agencies from the U.S. Department of the Interior.

While we continue to wait for Congress to pass a new federal budget, next year’s MRRIC schedule is still unknown. Next year the Corps must complete a five-year review of the 2018 Science and Adaptive Management Plan (SAMP) and finish the new approach for lower river pallids. The Corps is planning to hold an Adaptive Management Workshop in April; they will also hold at least one MRRIC meeting next year, depending on the funding the recovery program receives. I’ve represented the League on MRRIC since 2008.

Zebra Mussels Confirmed in Oahe

It was extremely disappointing to learn Lake Oahe, one of the three largest Missouri River reservoirs, is now infested with zebra mussels. Lake Oahe became the sixth new waterbody infested with zebra mussels in South Dakota in 2023. South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks (GFP) staff confirmed the presence of the zebra mussels at the East Shore and Cow Creek boat ramps.

GFP will install signs at access sites and communicate with groups affected by the infestation. Lake Oahe is the most popular fishery in the state. Boaters and anglers are reminded to always clean, drain and dry every time you come off the water. Zebra mussels are now in four of the six Missouri River reservoirs.

Basin Sees Above-Average Temperatures

The Missouri River basin experienced above-average temperatures in much of December and, until late in the month, received little precipitation. A Christmas system brought some rain, freezing rain, snow, and blizzard conditions, but the U.S. Drought Monitor shows 35 percent of the basin remains in drought. The most intense dry conditions are in eastern Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri. This marks the longest drought in Iowa since the 1950s. Iowa has had abnormally dry and drought conditions for 188 consecutive weeks.

Streamflow and soil moisture continue to be below normal in many areas. Low Missouri River levels caused the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (NGPC) to close boat ramps at Indian Cave State Park and Riverview Marina State Recreation Area. NGPC urged people to use caution at all ramps along the Missouri in southeastern Nebraska due to low-water hazards.

A strong El Niño in the Pacific continues to influence the weather. El Niño winters are typically warmer and drier for the northern tier of the country. If that occurs this winter, the basin could be very dry going into next year’s runoff season. That would pose problems for many of the river’s authorized purposes in 2024.

Preview of 2024

And on the subject of things coming in 2024... as we close out a busy 2023, the new year looks to be just as active. The Missouri River Initiative will be involved in numerous outreach and educational events. We’ll help coordinate a couple of major Missouri River cleanups. And we will continue to work on habitat restoration and resource conservation.

This coming year will be my last year heading up the League’s Missouri River Initiative, as I will be retiring next fall - more on that in the next few months. I look forward to working for, and with, you and our other partners in 2024 on many events and activities. Have a Happy New Year!

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

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