JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri River has dipped to its lowest levels on record since the 1950s, when the once free-flowing river was restrained with a series of reservoirs constructed in upstream states, Missouri officials said Thursday.
The National Weather Service is projecting the river will continue to fall to levels not seen since the drought of the 1930s — long before reservoirs were built.
In compliance with a federal judge’s order in a lawsuit brought by environmentalists, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers slowed water releases from upstream dams from 26,000 cubic feet per second to 21,000 cubic feet per second beginning Aug. 12 and continuing for three days.
Those reduced river flows are just now being noticed on parts of the Missouri.
At Hermann, for example, the Missouri River was reported to be at 3.5 feet Thursday morning. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources said the Hermann checkpoint set a new record low.
As the river has fallen, water temperatures have increased and are close to exceeding Missouri’s water quality standards, the department said.
Low water has halted barge shipping and could affect power generation because Missouri River water is used as a coolant by several electricity plants.
“Part of the reason the Missouri River is low is drought conditions that exist in the region,” Missouri Gov. Bob Holden said in a statement. “However, another reason is that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is not releasing enough water to meet its obligations in the lower Missouri River.”
Conservation groups contend in their lawsuit that the Army Corps of Engineers previously has violated the Endangered Species Act by blocking changes in river flow. They want the river to ebb and flow more naturally to encourage spawning and nesting to protect the least tern, piping plover and pallid sturgeon — fish and shorebirds on the government’s list of threatened and endangered species.
Various Missouri River lawsuits recently were assigned to U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson in Minnesota. Earlier this month, he upheld another judge’s order for the corps to reduce water releases from Missouri River dams. He has scheduled a status conference for Sept. 8.