Folks in western Iowa say the Missouri river’s so low, you could almost walk across to Nebraska. That may be exaggeration, but the debate continues over how to manage the diminished waters of the Missouri River after years of drought from the Great Plains upriver to the Rockies where the river begins. A court ruling for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will require the Army Corps of Engineers to make the river rise next spring, to mimic the natural seasonal flow for the benefit of endangered birds and fish. The Corps’ Paul Johnston says low water in all the up-river reservoirs on the Missouri will make that task even tougher. One thing not resolved in the case was a “storage preclude,” a determination whether the spring rise is canceled if those lakes are below a certain level and the spring flood wouldn’t have happened naturally. He says if they’re to make the river rise in spring, water will have to come out of those reservoirs. Johnston says the order for a spring rise also lacks criteria for high-water levels. The other contentious issue is “flood constraints” downstream, a decision on just when they should cut back releases from the Gavin’s Point dam closest to Iowa once the river stage is high downstream. Johnston says a planning committee was supposed to establish those rules, and the failure to agree on spring rise guidelines is putting the Corps behind on a final design. Johnston says the Corps is still working on just what that spring-rise plan’s going to look like. There are six “mainstem” dams on the Missouri, from Gavin’s Point up through the Dakotas, and water storage in the reservoirs is 18-million acre-feet behind normal, down by 47-percent from the usual volume in the big lakes. Kevin Knepper, a transportation manager in Sioux City, says the whole river shows the effect of years of drought. Knepper says most of what flows by Sioux City is melted snowpack from Montana, and he says they’re going into the 7th year of drought there, which has had a huge impact on the reservoirs. Last year barge shipping on the Missouri was cut by 48 days, but this year there was no season at all for the Big Soo Terminal at Sioux City. Kevin Knepper, general manager of the terminal, says normally barges carry cargo upriver to the shipping center. In a typical year Knepper says 100 barges will come all the way to Sioux City, where they deliver cargo including dry bulk fertilizer and steel coils for a local industry. The barges are then cleaned so they’ll be ready for reloading on their journey back downriver. They’ll be loaded with ag output — alfalfa pellets or grain, at terminals from Sergeant Bluff, Iowa, to Blair and Omaha, Council Bluffs, and ports in the state of Missouri. This year no barges docked at the Sioux City terminal. Knepper says it looks more encouraging for next year’s river shipping season. Late spring saw some snow on the eastern slope of the Rockies and ample rain in Montana, so soil moisture’s improved and now when it rains and snows, Knepper explains the soil won’t “gobble up all that moisture.” It’ll run off into the Missouri River basin and down the river. So far the snow’s been fairly good, and the coming winter’s predicted to be wet and warmer which would be perfect.
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