Army engineers plan river pulse to help endangered sturgeon

Thursday, March 19, 2009 | 3:36 p.m. CDT; updated 4:20 p.m. CDT, Thursday, March 19, 2009

ST. LOUIS — The Army Corps of Engineers said Thursday it plans to send more water down the Missouri River this weekend to help the endangered pallid sturgeon, but one Missouri critic calls it a "game of Russian roulette with Mother Nature."

The corps said a small pulse will start Saturday, increase for two days, then decrease starting Monday and return to minimum navigation flows by late next week.

The spring pulses are meant to replicate what once was a natural occurrence when melting snow caused a heavy flow of water downstream.

The corps did pulses last March and in May 2006.

Tom Waters, an Orrick farmer who heads the Missouri Levee and Drainage District Association, expressed concerns about levees still undergoing repairs after five floods over two years. He said many Missouri River levees lack the protective cover of grass and are more vulnerable to erosion and side washing.

"The corps has been lucky with their experiment so far, but I am afraid one of these days their luck may run out," Waters stated in a news release. "It is much easier to play Russian roulette when the gun is pointed at someone else's head. In this case, the gun is pointed at those who live and work along the river."

Waters said a second spring pulse in May is larger and comes at a time when Missouri River bottoms crops will have been planted, and noted that Missouri farmers lost crops to flooding the last two years.

Larry Cieslik, chief of water management, said the corps has safeguards in place to ensure the pulse does not cause downstream flooding.

Those mechanisms reduce or eliminate the pulse if water downstream is already flowing at high levels. Cieslik said the corps continually monitors water levels, weather forecasts and other data to guide its decisions.

The corps usually releases extra water in March, and again in May, to prompt spawning of the pallid sturgeon, a fish that is on the endangered species list.

The pulse will coincide with the annual increase in releases from Gavins Point Dam near Yankton, S.D., to provide more water for commercial navigation and other downstream uses from Sioux City, Iowa, to the Mississippi River.

River levels are expected to rise 1.5 feet at Sioux City, Iowa, and Omaha, Neb., and less than half a foot at Hermann.

Last year, the state of Missouri, concerned that the annual March release could exacerbate flooding from heavy rains, lost two attempts in federal court to stop it. But the corps ultimately held back the spring release on the Missouri River below Kansas City even though water was released higher up the river.

The move provided a pulse of water that's needed this time of year to prompt spawning of the fish, but it eliminated the extra flow in flood-weary Missouri.

Drought conditions and low reservoir levels upstream caused the corps to withhold March and May releases in 2007, and the March release in 2006. There weren't sufficient supplies in the upstream reservoirs to release water last May.

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