Missouri River plan sparks threats of suits

Corps' proposal `ignores sound science,' guided by politics, critics charge

February 28, 2004|By Judith Graham | Judith Graham,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

The Army Corps of Engineers yesterday proposed a new plan to manage the Missouri River, sparking howls of protest and immediate threats of lawsuits up and down America's longest waterway.

Despite numerous recommendations calling for an overhaul, the long-awaited Corps proposal - 15 years in the making - leaves the distribution of the giant river's flows largely unchanged.

Critics charged that politics trumped science in the proposal.

"I am disappointed that the best the Corps can come up with is a document that provides little more than the status quo ... [and that] blatantly ignores sound science," said Sen. Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat.

Thousands of acres of fresh habitat for three endangered species will be created under the plan at an estimated cost of more than $1 billion. But the Corps will not take immediate steps to restore the river's natural rise in the spring and fall in the summer, conditions scientists have said are essential to the recovery of these species.

Scientists warned that the plan wouldn't work and would lead to further declines in species and deterioration in the river's ecosystem.

"The Corps has been told what needs to be done to restore this natural resource," said Larry Hesse, a river ecologist who served on a 2002 National Academy of Sciences panel that reviewed the Missouri's ecosystem. "Clearly, they've decided to manage the river their own way, in opposition to a consensus in the scientific community."

After a two-week comment period in March, the Corps expects to issue a final "record of decision" this spring that will permanently govern the Missouri's operations.

Brig. Gen. William Grisoli, chief engineer for the Corps' Northwestern Division, said the agency had tried to strike a balance between conserving water, protecting species and providing predictability needed by hydroelectric power plants, barge companies, municipal water suppliers and recreational companies operating on the river.

"I'm confident we're providing the basin with a comprehensive plan that does that," he said yesterday.

But conservation groups said the Corps' plan gives too much weight to navigation, especially given that the barge industry on the Missouri is shrinking. In the past several months, two of three leading barge companies on the river have said they will cease operations.

"We're going to have to get back in court and deal with this," said Chad Smith, director of the Nebraska field office for American Rivers.

Meanwhile, business groups and sympathetic politicians criticized provisions in the Corps' plan that would allow more water to remain in upstream dams during periods of severe drought, such as that currently afflicting the upper Great Plains.

"So-called drought conservation measures ... re-allocate water to the benefit of upstream states at our expense," said Republican Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond of Missouri, calling for the proposal to be modified.

Groups also expressed concern that spring flows in the river could be increased in the future, if the agency determined this was necessary for species in consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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