Order could shift course of Mo. River’s management

Government officials are calling for a second opinion on flow.
Tuesday, November 11, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:48 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A change of course in the debate over the management of the Missouri River has sparked uncertainty within the local office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and concern within the Missouri Department of Conservation.

For three years, the Fish and Wildlife Service has maintained that management of the Missouri River by the Army Corps of Engineers must include a spring rise and summer drawdown to boost populations of the piping plover, a threatened species, and the pallid sturgeon and least tern, which are endangered. But now that official opinion, which plays a pivotal role in the Army Corps of Engineers’ plans for river management, might change.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of the Interior instructed the Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a second biological opinion by Dec. 15 under the direction of a new team of scientists.

The Columbia Fish and Wildlife Ecological Services Field Office and the conservation department played a significant role in development of the 2000 biological opinion, which called for a spring rise and summer drawdown. The recommendations prompted strong opposition from interest groups representing the barge industry, which say such measures would flood farmers and impair navigation. Such flows are also opposed by the Bush administration.

One of the new directors of the project is Robyn Thorson, regional director for the Big Rivers-Great Lakes region, which includes Missouri. But Charles Scott, director of the Columbia Field Office, is unsure what role local officials will play in the new assessment.

“There’s a significant amount of institutional knowledge that needs to be transferred, and that can only come from people who have done it in the past. We’ll be involved, but at what level, it’s hard to say,” Scott said.

Brian Canaday, Missouri River policy coordinator for the state Department of Conservation, said the decision to develop a new biological opinion came as a surprise to many, because no new information has been collected that would change the science presented in 2000. David Galat, an associate professor of fisheries and wildlife at MU and a fishery research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said scientific analysis since 2000 has shown that the principles expressed in the original opinion are as true today as when the report was released.

“The 2000 opinion was put together by the nation’s top scientists,” Canady said. “It was peer reviewed, and it is rock solid.”

Since policymakers already have the necessary science, Canaday said, there is only one reason for the re-evaluation.

“This is strictly a political move,” he said.

Canaday said his agency is somewhat anxious because the report will be completed in 45 days and there are no assurances the conservation department will have the opportunity to provide any input.

Scott said time is also a concern for the fish and wildlife agency. “The biggest problem is the tremendous amount of information that needs to be assimilated,” he said. “Forty-five days is not a lot of time.”

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