Corps lowering Mo. River after court’s decision

Although the plan will help preserve wildlife, many still debate the issue of water supply.
Wednesday, August 13, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:27 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Army Corps of Engineers expected to lower the Missouri River’s water level to 21,000 cubic feet per second by Tuesday evening to comply with a court order issued last week.

Last month, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler ordered the corps to begin lowering the river between July 15 and Aug. 15, and U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson ruled last week that the river level must be lowered by Tuesday. The gradual process of lowering the water level began Sunday evening, said Mike Wells, chief of water resources with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, who keeps track of the Missouri River’s water level.

Wells said the corps and the U.S. Geological Survey supply him with water-level readings from below the Gavins Point Dam in South Dakota. On Tuesday afternoon, it “appeared that they had already significantly reduced the flow,” Wells said.

The Army Corps expects the river level to drop 11/2 feet by today.

The debate over the level of the river began when conservation groups sought measures to protect two endangered species, the interior least tern and pallid sturgeon, and one threatened species, the piping plover, that nest on sandbars near Gavins Point. Wells said the terns and plovers will have completed their migration out of the dam area within the next few days.

The Army Corps was ordered to lower the river last month to protect these three species and faced a $500,000 fine for every day the river was not lowered. The corps refused the order by citing a prior ruling that it must keep the river at a level suitable for navigation, specifically allowing barge traffic to continue.

The effect of the lowering of the river on navigation, drinking water and cooling water for power plants is of concern to the Natural Resources Department. Wells worries that with the drought much of Missouri is experiencing, lowering the river will lead to a water supply downstream inadequate to meet the needs of Missouri citizens.

In Kansas City, drinking water costs will rise because of a higher treatment cost, Wells said. This was experienced last summer when the river experienced low levels and it became more costly to pump water out of the river.

The level of the Missouri River also directly affects the ability to cool power plants. Less water in the river leads to warmer water temperatures, which can hinder the ability to cool plants such as the Callaway County power plant owned by AmerenUE, Wells said. There are several power plants along the river that use the water for cooling purposes.

“When we have enough water for navigation it means we have enough water for other uses as well. At this time of the year when tributaries are low, (the corps) should be increasing the releases rather than decreasing,” Wells said.

The releases control the water flow through the Gavins Point Dam, Wells said. Increasing the releases raises the level of the river, while decreasing the releases lowers the level.

Mitch Frazier, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, said the corps conducted safety coordination with all of the stakeholders along the river, such as business operators and those in the barge industry, before lowering it on Sunday night.

Beginning Sept. 1, the corps will be in accordance with the river planning, or the current operating plan set forth in the Missouri River master manual, Frazier said. The manual is a product of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and the corps that regulates reservoir storage and river flow.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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