As a legal battle intensifies over how to regulate the flow of the Missouri River, the Bush administration is asking Congress for an additional $42 million for ecosystem restoration aimed at protecting endangered bird and fish species that live along the "Big Muddy."

The Corps of Engineers contends it is caught between two conflicting federal court rulings dealing with the Missouri’s flow management. A 2002 decision from U.S. District Court in Nebraska–upheld by an appellate court last month-- instructs the Corps to follow the agency’s 2003 operating plan and release enough water from upstream dams to permit barge traffic downstream.

Piping Plover, threatened species. (Photo courtesy of Corps of Engineers)

But a July 12 ruling from federal district court for the District of Columbia told the Corps it cannot follow its operating plan because it would harm the least tern, piping plover and pallid sturgeon, which are endangered or threatened species.

The Corps said, "After July 15, it is impossible to simultaneously comply with the conflicting flow requirements contained in the two orders." On July 15 the Justice Dept. filed a notice of appeal of the D.C. district court ruling and plans to file a request for a stay of that ruling, pending the appeal.

Sen. Bond praises administration plan. (Photo courtesy - Office of Sen. Christopher S. Bond)

The Corps terms the Bush administration’s restoration plan "unprecedented." It includes creating, improving and maintaining habitat for the protected species, improvements to hatcheries for the sturgeon and population assessments and research on all three species. Congress would have to approve the added $42 million. Corps appropriations bills for 2004 are now moving in the House and Senate.

Environmentalists hailed the D.C. court’s decision. David Hayes, a Washington, D.C., attorney who represented the environmental groups in the case, said, "It is about time that the wildlife interests that have gotten the short end of the stick for so many years–and that serve as modern-day proxies for the rich environmental resources that once characterized the mighty Missouri–finally will get their due."


Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.), a staunch defender of downstream interests, welcomed the Bush administration’s plan, calling it "a very important step…to help solve the Missouri River uncertainty and balance the multiple demands on the river." He added, "It isn’t over until the piping plover sings, but the administration is doing…the hard job of trying to help improve habitat without jeopardizing downstream shipping options, flood protection and power production."