U.S. Water News Online
WASHINGTON -- Accommodating barges that carry Midwestern
grain to the Gulf is pushing Missouri River fish and birds to the
brink of extinction, an environmental group said in naming the ``Big
Muddy'' America's most-threatened waterway.
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark would fail to recognize the
river whose meandering channels and teeming banks they explored
nearly two centuries ago, American Rivers said in its annual survey
of waterways in jeopardy.
Dams and channels built for navigation and hydropower have made it
straighter, shorter, narrower and deeper, eliminating islands and
sandbars for nesting and shallow breeding habitat for fish.
``Managing the Missouri River only for a tiny amount of barge
traffic is bad environmental policy and just plain bad economic
policy,'' said Rebecca Wodder, the group's president.
Its top choice was no surprise. Environmental and recreation
advocates are battling agriculture and shipping industries over
proposed changes in water flow intended to benefit fish and wildlife,
returning the river to a more natural spring surge and lower summer
Last summer, the controversy brought the U.S. Senate to a
standstill, resulting in President Clinton's veto of a $23.6 billion
energy and water spending bill.
This summer, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will issue a new
river management plan that is expected to adopt the controversial
``spring rise'' recommendations by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Citing U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers estimates, the group said Missouri River barges carry less
than one percent of the grain harvested on the plains, benefiting the
economy by about $6.9 million a year. Supporters of the flow changes
argue there are far bigger economic benefits in boating, fishing,
hunting, camping, hiking and other forms of recreation -- all of
which would be enhanced by the changes.
On average, the 735 miles of lower Missouri River hold just one
barge tow per day, the group said, citing corps estimates.
``I wouldn't quibble with their numbers,'' said Paul Johnston, a
spokesman for the corps' Northwestern Division in Omaha. ``But what
gets lost here is that it's not up to the Corps of Engineers to stop
supporting navigation. It's an authorized purpose, along with all the
other purposes Congress authorized. It isn't a bunch of guys sitting
around a table saying, `Let's build some dams and straighten this
Release of the dam reform plan will be followed by six months of
hearings and workshops throughout the Missouri River basin, which
includes parts of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska,
Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri.
A shipping industry group based in St. Louis, where the 2,500-mile
Missouri empties into the Mississippi River, dismissed American
Rivers' list as an annual public-relations stunt.
``Too bad it's not based on science,'' said Chris Brescia,
president of the Midwest Area River Coalition. Scientists from
Missouri state agencies insist their own historical data contradicts
the conclusions of the federal Fish and Wildlife Service.
Opponents of the changes argue that there are a host of ways to
protect the threatened and endangered species -- the least tern,
piping plover, and pallid sturgeon. For example, federal and state
authorities have in recent years acquired about 87,000 acres of
Missouri River floodplain to restore and conserve wildlife habitat.
``We can always do a better job of improving the river habitat,
and I have introduced federal legislation to do just that,'' said
Republican U.S. Sen. Kit Bond, a Missourian who has positioned
himself as a major obstacle to flow-change proponents.
``I think we can and should do all of this while avoiding any
moves that will increase the chance of flooding or cut off
electricity generation,'' he said.
The Missouri and Mississippi were the group's only holdovers from
last year's list.
The Mississippi made its return as the corps considers two flood
control projects that American Rivers said would damage more than
200,000 acres of wetlands.
The St. Johns Bayou/New Madrid Floodway would control flooding in
southeastern Missouri by closing a gap in the Mississippi River levee
and installing two large pumps. The project would shut off the river
from its largest remaining stretch of floodplain.
Much farther south in the Mississippi Delta, the corps proposes
building the Yazoo Pump, a hydraulic pumping plant that would protect
a sparsely populated region of farmers from flooding.
``Reconnecting the river to its floodplain and restoring
seasonally flooded wetlands are essential to restoring the
Mississippi River and reducing pollution that causes the dead zone''
in the Gulf of Mexico, the new report said.
American Rivers proposes alternatives such as reforestation and
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