The latest chapter in the Missouri River water fights came Tuesday when U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler refused to stay her own order that directed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to close floodgates on the dams upriver and lower the water level of the Missouri downstream. Randy Asbury is head of the Coalition to Protect the Missouri River, which represents barge shipping interests and opposed the order to lower the river water.He calls it an “egregious decision” that puts animal needs over human, and he says there probably won’t be any benefit to the birds. The Fish & Wildlife Service in November 2000 issued an order that the river’s operation jeopardized endangered the interior least tern, the piping plover and the pallid surgeon. The Corps’ Paul Johnston says that agency’s charged with managing the river for the benefit of all users — but sometimes those users have needs that are in conflict with each other. This is the largest reservoir system in the U.S., a river 2300 miles long that drains 567-thousand square miles. That’s a basin, Johnston, says with a lot of diversity among people and climates, and different demands on the water. Downriver they want water higher for shipping grain on barges, cooling power plants, and city drinking water. There are 1,600 boat slips on the river from Sioux City to Omaha, and those marinas are right “on the cusp” of going out of business. But boating’s even bigger up in the Dakotas where manmade lakes behind the Missouri dams are half a century old and create a multimillion dollar recreation industry. Johnston says it’s a situation that’s resulted in lots of losers and few winners. Not that long ago, he says this was “just the great Plains” with not many people but now along the river’s banks there are 10-million people. That changes the environment, he says — instead of buffalo grass there are hybrid corn and soybeans, interstates, electric lights, cities and cars. All that means heavier use of the river, and a society where many interests compete for the water of the 2300-mile-long Missouri River…often in conflict with each other. State agencies and the Corps have plans to create habitat that will help the endangered things, but Judge Gladys Kessler said in her ruling Tuesday that in the long run there’s no price you can put on a species that’s been made extinct, and she predicted that will guide the outcome of the Justice Department’s appeal.
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