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Published August 02, 2010, 07:22 AM

Conflict ebbs as the Missouri River rises

BISMARCK — Recreational boaters are back and the fish are biting in the upper reaches of the Missouri River system. Hundreds of miles downstream, fully laden barges are again plying the Big Muddy without worry of hitting bottom.

By: By James MacPherson, The Associated Press, The Jamestown Sun

BISMARCK — Recreational boaters are back and the fish are biting in the upper reaches of the Missouri River system. Hundreds of miles downstream, fully laden barges are again plying the Big Muddy without worry of hitting bottom.

Low river levels caused by a decade of dry conditions in the Missouri River basin have been reversed by rains and robust snow runoff, and the warring over water among downstream and upstream states has ebbed until the next drought hits.

Now, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages dams and reservoirs along the 2,341-mile river, is dealing with excess water and is in a race to lower reservoir levels before runoff next spring.

“We’re trying to move that water fast enough to get it out but not so fast that it will cause flooding and erosion in the process,” said Paul Johnston, a corps spokesman based in Omaha, Neb.

The water storage level of the six upstream reservoirs in the Missouri River system is nearly 66 million acre feet at present, or about 9 million acre feet above ideal levels, Johnston said. An acre-foot is the amount of water covering an acre, one foot deep.

Beginning in 2008, the six reservoirs in the Dakotas, Montana and Nebraska began rebounding with more mountain snowmelt and wetter weather.

Previous years of parched conditions shrunk the reservoir storage level to 33.9 million acre feet in February 2007, an all-time low, Johnston said.

Shallow water threatened municipal water intakes, limited lake access, exposed additional shoreline to weeds and further threatened the endangered pallid sturgeon, which have struggled since the river was straightened and dammed a half-century ago.

Drought also cut electric power generation at the six Missouri River dams, forcing the U.S. Energy Department’s Western Area Power Administration to spend more than $1.5 billion since 2000 buying power elsewhere to fulfill contracts, said Randy Wilkerson, a WAPA spokesman in Colorado.

Wilkerson said next year is forecast to be the first time in more than a decade that WAPA won’t have to buy more electricity on the open market.

The corps attempted to offset the impacts of drought and balance the interests of Missouri River users, arguably pleasing no one, said Johnson, who retired on Friday after 28 years with the corps.

“There has been a great deal of inherent conflict,” he said. “We cannot store water and release water at the same time to everybody’s satisfaction.”

Upstream states want water held in reservoirs to support fish reproduction and recreation. Downstream states wanted more water released from the dams, mainly to support barge traffic.

A flurry of federal lawsuits were filed during the drought over the way the corps operates the Missouri River system. The corps traditionally has retained water in upstream reservoirs and released it in the summer to maintain sufficient water levels for barge traffic. But the effects of a lingering drought on the upper Great Plains made lawsuits over Missouri River management a spring ritual.

Johnston said no federal lawsuits are pending, as Missouri River users are now pacified with plenty of water.

“What’s happening is the same as what happened in 1993, when we had several years drought and the system refilled in a year and all was right with the world,” Johnston said. “When everybody has all the water they need all the enthusiasm for fighting goes away.”

North Dakota’s Lake Sakakawea hit a record-low level in 2005 because of prolonged drought in the Missouri River Basin, threatening the fishery. The lake has risen more than 45 feet since then.

Kirby Morgenstern, owner of Morgy’s Guide Service at the lake, said his business has picked up with the rising water.

“Everything is back to normal and the fishing has gotten a lot better,” he said. “Until last year when the water started coming back, the fish on the lake were skinny and ugly. They’re fantastic now, and the economy is going to come back out of this.”

Jim Torgerson, who runs Lund’s Landing, a marina and restaurant at the lake, said several businesses shuttered over the past decade due to low water.

“All of my neighbors who had small fishing businesses went down,” he said. “Now the water’s great, the fishing is great and people are buying boats.”

In north-central Missouri, Agriservices of Brunswick LLC, bought its own barge to move grain and fertilizer after some shippers folded during the drought, said Lucy Fletcher, a company spokeswoman.

“When the water became unreliable, most barge lines pulled off the Missouri River,” she said. “It’s been hard — when they’re holding water for recreation it’s hard to rely on it for industry.”

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., one of the biggest critics of the corps’management of the Missouri, has fought to hold releases in the upstream reservoirs to support fish reproduction and recreation.

Dorgan said a 1944 law setting out the purposes for the river’s dams and reservoirs favors downstream barges, an industry he says “has shrunk to the size of a minnow.”

He successfully pushed for a five-year, $25 million federal study that examines if changes should be made.

“We shouldn’t have a 60-year-old management system in place that stands logic on its head,” Dorgan said.

Shallow water downstream dogged the barge industry, and only about half of the eight barge company’s that began last decade survived, said Lynn Muench, a vice president of The American Waterways Operators, a St. Louis-based trade group for the towboat and barge industry.

This year is the first time in a decade that barges are able to haul full loads without worry of running aground, she said.

“The flows are happening and the lack of water is not something anyone is concerned about right now,” Muench said. “But anyone who is sensible and reasonable knows the drought will come back.”

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