Tony Prato has spent years studying the Missouri River and believes adaptive management is the best solution for managing the river.
Prato, professor of agricultural economics at MU and director of the Missouri River Institute, said adaptive management was developed in the 1970s to manage natural resources where there is uncertainty about the impact of different management plans. The process combines science and the stakeholders.
In the case of the Missouri River, stakeholders include the Army Corps of Engineers, the barge and utility industries and conservationists concerned about wildlife on the river.
U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler recently ordered the corps to lower the flow of the Missouri River to help save threatened and endangered species that live on the river and whose habitats are protected under the Endangered Species Act. The corps refused, saying they were following a prior order given by an 8th U.S. Circuit Court that said the corps must keep the flow level high enough for barges to navigate the river. To meet Kessler’s order, the river would drop below the level necessary for barge travel.
The Missouri River would be the largest area to try adaptive management. It has been used in the Northwest on the Columbia River, which runs through Oregon, in the Southwest on the lower Colorado River and in the Everglades.
In the case of the Missouri River, a plan would be implemented, such as lowering the river flow, and the outcome would be observed over time. All effects and changes in the river, wildlife and stakeholders’ industries would be recorded and evaluated.
There are several obstacles to adaptive management, however.
One drawback is the length of time needed to see results. Prato said it would probably take several years to get accurate data, though there is no set time limit.
But Prato said using adaptive management forces all parties to adjust and try to make a plan work. Using adaptive management would answer the question of whether lowering the river would kill the barge industry or if other means of shipping, such as trains and trucks, could replace barges.
Prato said there are no guarantees adaptive management would bring a solution making all parties happy.
“This would be a social experiment with people, people’s lives, economics, business and the ecosystem all playing a part,” Prato said.
Randy Asbury, executive director of the Coalition to Protect the Missouri River, a group representing the agriculture, navigation, utilities and barge industries, said he would be interested in trying adaptive management to find a solution to the debate on the river.
“The key to any future management will need to be based on sound science,” Asbury said.
Asbury also said the navigation industry’s willingness to go along with a plan would depend on the plan itself. For instance, he said, a plan that included a low summer flow would be hard for his group to accept.
Groups have to agree to the plan for it to work, said Charlie Scott, field supervisor at the Missouri Ecological Services Department at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Scott said he thinks adaptive management could work on the river.
“We need a collaboration effort,” he said. “Right now we’re stalled and we’re not making any progress towards a solution.”