The ecological health of the Missouri River basin, which covers one-sixth of the continental U.S., will continue to deteriorate unless steps are taken to restore some of the "Big Muddy's" natural patterns, such as its flow pulses and meanders, a scientific review committee says. Those remedial steps may include some "re-engineering," says Steven P. Gloss, a U.S. Geological Survey program manager who chaired the National Research Council panel. But he adds that the committee felt "to a great extent there's an opportunity to let the river do the work of restoration...."

Barge traffic on the Missouri River. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

The most controversial recommendation in the report, released Jan. 9, is a call for a moratorium on the Corps of Engineers' revision of its Master Manual, which guides how the Corps regulates the river's flow, "until the revisions reflect a collaborative, science-based approach that uses adaptive management to improve the condition of the Missouri River ecosystem."

But Brig. Gen. David Fastabend, commander of the Corps' Northwestern Division, said he cannot call a pause in the Master Manual rewrite, because under the Endangered Species Act he must respond to a Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion and change the river's flow in 2003. He says a final environmental impact statement is due in May 2002 on the manual's revision and a final record of decision on that EIS in October.

Moreover, Fastabend says, "The Corps for a long time has supported the concept of adaptive management," by seeking the views of various interest groups, area residents and local officials. For the manual revision's draft EIS, which includes several flow options, "We are getting, trust me, a lot of input," he says.

The 2,300-mile-long river stretches from Three Forks, Mont., to a point near St. Louis, where it joins the Mississippi. It has long been a battleground between those upstream, who want more water retained there for fishing and other recreational uses, and those downstream, who want more water released to benefit barge commerce. The Corps' manual revision process has gone on for 14 years because of the wide differences of opinions between those upstream and downstream groups.

The committee report says, "Degradation of the natural Missouri River ecosystem is clear and is continuing." Gloss says the ecosystem's condition is such that "some immediate remedial action is needed."

Chad Smith, director of the Nebraska field office for the environmental group American Rivers, calls the report "a slam-dunk affirmation of the scientific and economic points that we have been making for years." He says the study is "very clear about stating that a return to more natural flow on the river is the key to restoring the river's health."

Gloss says environmental changes in the basin began more than a century ago, when non-native fish species were introduced. Other key events were the construction of seven dams, six of them built by the Corps, from the 1930s through the mid-1960s, and the channelization of the lower 735 miles of the river to support navigation.

CAPTION TO COME Pair of least terns, an endangered species. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

As a result, "the Missouri River ecosystem is in a state of decline," Gloss says. Already three species, the least tern, piped plover, and pallid sturgeon, are on the federal endangered species list—developments covered by the Fish and Wildlife report to the Corps—and regeneration of cottonwood trees is "almost nonexistent in the basin," Gloss says. He adds that things will get worse "unless decisive management actions to restore some portion of the river's natural physical processes—including flows that emulate the river's natural hydrological processes—are taken."

The committee endorses adaptive management, but it also says that in weighing competing interests, "improving ecological conditions should be considered on par with other management goals." It also calls for federal legislation and unspecified "fiscal resources" to improve the ecosystem.

Gloss says the basin is "a rich treasure trove" of species diversity, floodplain habitat and wetland. "We think it could stand as a significant example of large-scale river restoration, not only in this country but in the world." But he adds, "It will be very challenging for the stakeholders in the basin."

Actual changes in the river's flow probably won't take effect for a long time, even if the Corps meets its deadline for revising the manual. Fastabend says many people have told him "the Corps of Engineers is going to go to court no matter what decision we take."