Five-year Missouri River study begins comment phase

Sunday, May 23, 2010 | 5:34 p.m. CDT; updated 5:52 p.m. CDT, Sunday, May 23, 2010
In this March 29, 2005 file photo, Joe Gill throws out a line on the Missouri River below Hauser Dam near Helena, Mont. Congress authorized a $25 million, five-year study to determine whether changes need to be made in the 1944 law that sets eight purposes for the dams, reservoirs and lower free-flowing river: flood control, navigation, hydropower, irrigation, water supply, recreation, water quality, and fish and wildlife.

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — A lengthy review of how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages the Missouri River system will be done with a backdrop of politics and special interests — and low confidence in the corps.

The $25 million, five-year study was authorized by Congress to determine whether changes need to be made in the 1944 law that sets eight purposes — flood control, navigation, hydropower, irrigation, water supply, recreation, water quality, and fish and wildlife — for the dams, reservoirs and lower free-flowing river.

Meeting sites

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — These public meetings are scheduled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as it prepares to study the authorized purposes of the Missouri River system:

  • May 25, Mobridge, S.D.
  • May 26, Pierre, S.D.
  • May 27, Rapid City, S.D.
  • June 1, Jefferson City, Mo.
  • June 2, Kansas City, Mo.
  • June 3, St. Joseph, Mo.
  • June 15, Fort Peck, Mont.
  • June 16, Williston, N.D.
  • June 17, Bismarck, N.D.
  • June 18, Fargo, N.D.
  • June 22, Council Bluffs, Iowa
  • June 23, Nebraska City, Neb.
  • June 24, Lincoln, Neb.
  • July 7, New Orleans
  • July 8, Memphis, Tenn.
  • July 9, St. Louis
  • July 13, Topeka, Kan.
  • July 14, Salina, Kan.
  • July 15, Manhattan, Kan.
  • July 27, Rock Island, Ill.
  • July 28, Des Moines, Iowa
  • July 29, Sioux City, Iowa
  • July 30, Yankton, S.D.
  • Aug. 3, Cheyenne, Wyo.
  • Aug. 4, North Platte, Neb.
  • Aug. 5, Denver
  • Aug. 17, Helena, Mont.
  • Aug. 18, Billings, Mont.
  • Aug. 19, Thermopolis, Wyo.
  • Aug. 20, Casper, Wyo.



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The massive study begins as a recent report by a Colorado consulting group says eight of 10 people it questioned through interviews and focus groups said changes are needed in how the corps manages the basin system, which stretches some 2,300 miles from Montana to St. Louis.

More than a third of those interviewed said "major" changes were needed in how the corps manages the river.

"Realistically, there's not enough water to do everything for everybody, and there's always that dilemma," said David Pope, executive director of the Missouri River Association of States and Tribes, which requested the study two years ago.

"I think what's pretty apparent to a lot of people is that there's been tremendous change — socially, economically, environmentally — (in) the way in which water is used. All of those things have changed a lot since 1944," Pope said.

Management of the river system has often been a contentious issue between upper-basin and lower-basin states and has resulted in lawsuits. Upper-basin states generally want rising or stable water levels for fish reproduction and summer recreation. Lower-basin states desire flood control and a steady flow for barges and municipal or commercial water uses.

The corps will be gathering comment at 41 meetings through August in the basin states of Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas and in Denver, New Orleans, Memphis, Tenn., and Rock Island, Ill.

Eleven meetings invite participation by American Indian tribes, some of whom lost land and were relocated when reservoirs were built in the upper basin.

The meetings begin at three South Dakota locations Tuesday through Thursday.

"This is the point where we're really going to hone in specifically on what we are going to study and how much we're going to study," Monique Farmer, spokeswoman for the corps' district office in Omaha, Neb., said of the summer meetings. "We like to say the size and the shape of what the study is going to be."

The Osprey Group is the Colorado consultant hired by the federal government to assess how the corps can develop a project management plan that includes the diverse interests in the basin.

The group cited such difficulties as a highly politicized environment, the possibility that various interests could derail the process at any time, and low public confidence in the Corps of Engineers.

"The corps is characterized with words such as secretive, inflexible and unresponsive," the Osprey Group report said. "This reputation results in a good deal of public skepticism."

Farmer discounted that conclusion.

"I think the majority of people would probably tell you that the Corps of Engineers is a great engineering force and that we're highly disciplined," she said, "and that we're doing the most we can, particularly with this study, to ensure that people know public involvement is a key piece of it for our success and for the success of the study overall."

The Osprey Group said divisions within the basin, deep-seated conflict, advocacy positions and the complexity of the issues will make it difficult to arrive at consensus during the study phase, which is set to begin later this year and run into 2014.

It suggested that the corps use an executive council of about 15 members to exchange information and perspectives. The council would be composed of the corps' senior leadership, a representative from each basin state and a representative from other federal agencies.The final decision-making authority would rest with the corps.

"We're still deciding how to move forward with some of those recommendations, how we're going to handle them," Farmer said.

Ideally, the study will provide information, objective analysis and common ground that can benefit the entire basin without someone losing and someone winning, said Pope, whose group is composed of state and tribal representatives from Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas.

"But there's a lot of things that have not been dealt with in the basin that this could be the impetus for, such as water supply needs in rural areas and on Indian reservations," he said.

Changing the 1944 Flood Control Act to redefine priorities would require approval by Congress.

"The political environment is perhaps the most influential factor affecting the Authorized Purposes Study," the Osprey report said. "Unless the various interests are engaged and believe in the efficacy of the study process and findings, they will likely pursue political channels to derail the study."

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