WASHINGTON - The Army Corps of Engineers is proposing a new Missouri River management plan that it says will protect wildlife without controversial changes in the river's flow.
Under court order to lower water this summer for endangered species, the corps has drafted a long-term plan that relies on restoring wildlife habitat by means other than sharp fluctuations in the river's depth. Among the proposals:
Widening the river wherever possible.
Reconnecting the river with its floodplain.
Cutting holes in dikes from Nebraska to St. Louis in order to improve areas for fish.
Missouri officials are pleased by the absence of wildlife-related flow changes, which they say threaten water supplies and navigation. But they are worried about other parts of the plan that would hold water upstream during persistent drought and cut as much as a month from the barge-navigation season.
The corps embodied the plan in a "biological assessment" of the river, which was forwarded July 30 to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The service has until the end of this month to pass judgment on the corps' plan, which ultimately would become the basis for the long-disputed master manual for Missouri River operations.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has been at odds with the corps for more than a decade on Missouri River issues. But in recent months the wildlife agency has been less aggressive in its dealing with Army engineers, leading many observers to believe that it might accept the new plan.
The next step would be a revised biological opinion by the service, paving the way for a new river-operations manual that corps officials say that want to finish by the end of the year.
Corps spokesman Homer Perkins noted that there would be time for public comment on the corps' proposal. But he added: "Not everybody is going to be happy with all of it, and everybody is going to be unhappy with some of it."
The Corps of Engineers and the Fish and Wildlife Service are carrying out a White House-ordered negotiation aimed at avoiding a finding by the service that the corps' river management violates the Endangered Species Act.
On the eve of an election year, the White House is pushing for solutions to the messy, multi-pronged Missouri River controversy, which involves a water war between upstream and downstream states and a half-dozen lawsuits in federal courts.
James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said he views settling the river conflict as "an old-fashioned good-government issue" with uncertain political benefits because of conflicting needs along the river.
"The president believes that we can produce a master manual that meets the stated reasons for the river's operation and at the same time makes meaningful progress toward habitat recovery," said Connaughton, the president's top environmental adviser.
Connaughton left no doubt about the significance of the corps' new proposal, calling it "a major step" and adding, "Let's give this new approach a chance. It's highly consequential and should be given a chance."
Since last month, the escalating Missouri River conflict has resulted in rulings by federal judges in four states plus the District of Columbia and a proposal from South Dakota for a water summit between the basin's governors.
Responding to a court order, the corps plans to reduce the flow of water this week from Gavins Point Dam in South Dakota into the lower river by a sufficient amount to reduce the Missouri's depth by several feet downstream.
For weeks, the corps defied an injunction from U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler in Washington to lower the water to protect two nesting birds, the endangered least tern and piping plover, which is classified by the government as "threatened." Kessler cited the corps for contempt and warned of $500,000 a-day penalties.
After running out of appeals, the court agreed to lower the water this week - but for three days rather than a full month as Kessler had required.
The corps succeeded in winning a stay in the contempt order and penalties. But more court rulings are expected in the coming weeks, one from the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis that could decide whether a law stipulating navigation as a priority when managing the river takes precedence over the Endangered Species Act.
The corps hopes its new plan will prevent the need for court orders in the future.
The 1973 Endangered Species Act prohibits federal agencies from doing anything - such as operating dams - that harms protected species or impedes their recovery. The Fish and Wildlife Service has said the river's flow needs to be adjusted to protect the two protected birds and a third endangered species, the pallid sturgeon.
Besides a summer drawdown of water, the service recommended a "spring rise" when drought is not an issue to re-create the backwaters that existed before the river was dammed and channelized.
But the corps now is offering a new approach it says "will achieve the biological attributes" the Fish and Wildlife Service wants.
That approach includes efforts to widen the river wherever possible, restore side channels and reconnect the river with its floodplain - all beneficial to fish and birds.
The plan emphasizes "adaptive management," enabling changes as the populations of species are monitored.
In court proceedings last month, the corps announced that the White House had agreed to seek $42 million this year from Congress for Missouri River restoration. That allocation would be part of nearly $200 million the corps hopes to spend on environmental projects along the river over the next five years.
Conservation groups have pushed for years for more spending along the river. But the new plan falls short, given the pressure from biologists and the federal court to alter the river's flows, argued Chad Smith, Midwest representative for the advocacy group American Rivers.
"It leaves out the most important thing as far as restoring the health of the river," he said.
Other provisions of the plan are aimed at conserving water upstream during droughts.
For instance, the corps would reduce water releases to the lower portion of the river and cut an entire month from what is normally an eight-month navigation season if the total amount of water in six upstream reservoirs dropped below 59 million acre-feet in annual measurements July 1.