Environmental groups fighting for what they see as a more natural flow for the Missouri River lost a battle with a major decision in federal court this week. A federal judge in St. Paul consolidated five separate suits into one, and then ruled the Corps of Engineers current operating plan is valid. Eric Eckl is a spokesman for American Rivers, a group that filed several of those lawsuits, and he admits there are some environmental considerations in the Corps’ Master Manual. He says for the near term he thinks we’ll see some habitat restoration below the Gavins Point dam near Yankton, and some “very modest” changes in the way the dame are operated during droughts in the coming year. Critics charge the plan favors downstream barge operators over upstream recreation uses, and doesn’t do enough to accommodate endangered species.He says the group doesn’t feel the changes amount to much of a start restoring the river and rectifying the “unfortunate political and economic situation” up and down the length of the river but he says it’s better than nothing. Eckl says they will step back, and decide on the next move, and they’ll take a fresh look at the Missouri River and what might be done, and he adds it’s the longest river in America and so the American Rivers group isn’t giving up. Eckl says they have no timetable on deciding on any further legal action. While this week’s ruling settled a handful of suits over the river’s management, there are still others dealing with other aspects of the plan, and at the root of it is the river’s historic low level. Paul Johnston with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says that’s a problem that isn’t getting any better.The eastern parts of the Dakotas, eastern Nebraska and western Iowa are doing quiet well with all the rain we’ve had, but western Nebraska, the western Dakotas and Montana are “still very much in severe drought.” Johnston says the upriver regions that feed the Missouri are possibly in the grip of the worst of a drought that’s entering its sixth or seventh year. The big reservoirs in the Dakotas and Montana are down 25-30 feet below normal operating levels, so boating and taking water for municipal drinking-water systems is a challenge. The Missouri’s head is considered to be in Montana at the confluence of three rivers named by the Lewis and Clark Expedition. From Three Forks, Montana, to where the Missouri joins the Mississippi, he says it’s two-thousand 316-point-four miles.
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