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Conservation department calls for river changes

Wednesday, March 27, 2002

JEFFERSON CITY -- Citing the importance of farming as well as fish, wildlife and recreation, the Missouri Department of Conservation has asked for "a finer balance" in management of the Missouri River.

The conservation department's recommendations for river management are summarized in a recent letter commenting on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Revised Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the Missouri River Master Water Control Manual.

The conservation department letter recommends reducing the flow of the Missouri River to 41,000 cubic feet per second at Kansas City from Aug. 1 through Sept. 15 six out of every 10 years. The conservation department says this reduced flow would benefit fish, wildlife and recreation. At the same time, it says this level of flow is sufficient to keep barges moving up and down the river. Furthermore, said the conservation department's letter, increased flows after Sept. 15 could provide important benefits fro navigation on the Mississippi River.

Some of the river management alternatives the Corps of Engineers is considering call for increased spring flows to mimic natural seasonal flows. In its comments, the conservation department noted that the Missouri River already experiences a spring rise in Missouri due to normal rises in tributary streams. The conservation department's letter, signed by Director Jerry Conley, said "... we caution that the effects of a periodic spring rise on Missouri's agricultural community must be a top priority in consideration of this important Master Manual issue. We want the agricultural community along the Missouri River to remain viable and profitable in the twenty-first century, and we believed this can be achieved within the context of careful river management decisions."

The conservation department's comments were based on information from the Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Research Council's recent report, "The Missouri River Ecosystem: Exploring the Prospects for Recovery."

The conservation department also based its recommendations on an analysis of river depths by its own staff. This analysis used Corps of Engineers data to create a three-dimensional computer model of the river that shows how the river would look with different water flows. This analysis suggests that some Corps of Engineers estimates of how much water is needed to sustain barge transportation on the river might not be accurate any longer.

In the past 100 years, the Corps of Engineers has used wood and rock structures to confine the Missouri River's flow to a much narrower channel than the original. Farther upstream, the Corps has built huge reservoirs that make it possible to hold vast amounts of water from spring rains and snowmelt in the Rocky Mountains.

These changes enable the Corps to reduce spring flooding and release water for sustained river flow throughout the dry months. However, the same changes have drastically reduced areas suitable for fish and wildlife. Straightening the river has shortened it by 127 miles between St. Louis and Sioux City, Iowa. For each mile of river length lost, wildlife experts estimate that one square mile of islands, oxbow lakes, sandbars, mud flats, and other wetlands and shallow water habitat have been lost. The conservation department estimates that only 2 to 5 percent of the river's historic shallow-water acreage remains today.

"The current Master Manual needs to be revised to strike a better balance between the uses that the river sees today," said Conley. "The recreational potential of our namesake river is absolutely enormous and largely unfulfilled. We can come a lot closer to realizing that potential while maintaining or even enhancing benefits for agriculture, shipping and flood control. I'm very optimistic that the Missouri River will provide many more benefits for agriculture, shipping and flood control. I'm very optimistic that the Missouri River will provide many more benefits tomorrow than it does today."



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