A team of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists is putting the final touches on its latest recommendation for the management of the Missouri River. The document, known as the Biological Opinion, will guide the Army Corps of Engineers in deciding how to control the river in a way that best protects endangered birds and fish. It’s the latest turn in a contentious battle that for years has pitted environmentalism against economics. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Kevin Lavery reports:
A team of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists is putting the final
touches on its latest recommendation for the management of the Missouri
River. The document, known as the Biological Opinion, will guide the Army
Corps of Engineers in deciding how to control the river in a way that best
protects endangered birds and fish. It’s the latest turn in a contentious
battle that for years has pitted environmentalism against economics. The
Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Kevin Lavery reports:
The new Biological Opinion will be the second such document in three years.
The 2000 Bi Op – as it’s often called – advocated high water releases on the
Missouri each spring to cue the spawning season of the pallid sturgeon.
Reducing the flows in the summer, the Bi Op explained, would expose sandbars
to provide nesting grounds for two endangered birds, the interior least tern
and the piping plover.
That philosophy had been the view of many in the Fish and Wildlife Service,
who have studied the Missouri for more than a decade. But in early
November, the Department of the Interior announced it was replacing the
original scientific team to expedite the process of crafting a new outlook
for the river.
The decision unsettles environmentalist Chad Smith with the group American
Rivers. He feels the switch was an attempt by the Bush Administration to
silence those who offered a politically unpopular opinion.
“It seems to us like there’s an effort being made to try to find
someone to give the administration the answer that they want; that they don’t want to make flow
changes even though the science is crystal clear.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service team leaders deny that politics played a role
in rebuilding the scientific staff. The 15-member team in fact includes
seven who either worked on the 2000 Bi Op or have specific research
experience on the Missouri.
Commercial shippers that do business on the river are hopeful that new
thinking may lead to more growth for their industry. Navigation on the
Missouri has always been negligible, but industry officials say the past
summer was nothing short of devastating. A series of court decisions and
overturns led to a three-day drop in flow levels in August that ground barge
traffic to a halt.
Chris Brescia is President of the Midwest Area River Coalition 2000, which
represents barge operators. He says that incident punctuated their position
that unpredictable flow levels make the Missouri an unreliable
“The conflicting court orders literally brought everything to a
standstill because it was unsafe for operators to quote freight rates and to
presume that they could navigate on the river when they didn’t know at what
point in time the court was going to reverse a decision to support
Central to the debate over how to manage the Missouri is the issue of
whether the economic value of river commerce is worth the cost of keeping
the river navigable. For the past decade, the Corps of Engineers has spent
just three million dollars a year on navigation. The Corps’ own data
indicates that navigation is worth about three times that amount each year.
One fully loaded 15-barge tow can carry more than 22-thousand tons, about as
much as 870 large semi trucks. Barge operators say having the river as a
viable transportation route keeps the cost of other shipping modes down.
But American Rivers argues that the two million tons of fertilizer, grain
and similar products barges carry each year on the Missouri fall far short
of what the Corps projected decades ago would be carried on the river.
For its part, the Corps of Engineers says whatever the cost-benefit ratio,
navigation is a congressionally mandated purpose it’s obliged to continue
The draft of the Corps’ 2004 operating plan does not include the flow
changes environmentalists have demanded. Corps spokesman Paul Johnston says
his agency recognizes that those measures will not provide the biological
conditions the listed species need to survive. Instead, Johnston says the
Corps plans to spend more than 40-million dollars next year to accelerate
its habitat creation program:
“We’ll be looking for opportunities to acquire appropriate land
from willing sellers, and we’ll be looking at building tern and plover
habitat as well. So I’m really convinced we will reach a point where we can
have a much richer river than we have now and still enjoy the economic
The scientific team has until December 15 to complete its Biological
Opinion. The Army Corps of Engineers hopes to have its final operating plan
for the Missouri in place by March 1.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Kevin Lavery.