The Corps of Engineers has issued final documents for the controversial job of operating the Missouri River, but with continuing criticism and court challenges likely, the plan is far from final.

For construction, the main element of the plan embodied in the documents released March 19 is the Corps' commitment to spend $11 million to construct 1,200 new acres of shallow-water habitat by July 1 to protect the endangered pallid sturgeon. Already, Corps officials said, they have started that job, cutting notches in 19 dikes on the river and letting contracts for other habitat-related work.

Brig. Gen. William Grisoli, commander of the Corps' Northwestern Division, says that the agency is aiming to abide by a biological opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that calls for adding 20,000 acres of such habitat, in stages, by 2020. The 1,200 acres would be the first installment of that total.


Other items in the 2004 program include modernizing and expanding fish hatcheries and constructing sandbar habitat for the threatened or endangered least tern and piping plover.

For next year's phase of the work, which includes creating 800 additional acres of shallow-water habitat for the sturgeon, the Bush administration has requested $69 million in the Corps' fiscal 2005 budget. Congress is beginning its review of the 2005 budget.

The newly issued documents include the final 2004 operating plan for the Missouri and the first major revision in more than 40 years in the Master Water Quality Manual for river, which is the nation's longest. They also include the final 2004 operating plan for the "Big Muddy" and a record of decision for the final environmental impact statement for managing the river's dams and reservoirs.

Managing the Missouri involves juggling competing interests of upstream officials, who want more water retained in reservoirs there to stimulate recreational uses, and downstreamers, who favor releasing more water to help barge commerce. The Corps also must follow a variety of federal statutes, including those mandating flood control and others that set forth endangered species protection and other environmental requirements.

Woodley: Plan ‘strikes the best balance,' but court challenges likely.

John Paul Woodley, assistant Army secretary for civil works, said the operating plan "strikes the best balance that we can strike and that it meets all of our requirements and... is a substantial improvement over the manual that we've been operating under with minor modifications since 1960." But he adds, "I believe that it is not the last word, that it will be challenged in federal court, that it will be scrutinized and that it will continue to be refined."

(Photo courtesy of : U.S. Army)