More info requested regarding plan for Missouri River

More info requested regarding plan for Missouri River The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has informed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that more information is needed regarding the Corps' 2002-2003 Annual Operating Plan (AOP) for the Missouri River Mainstem Reservoir System before formal consultation under the Endangered Species Act can begin.

The corps requested formal consultation with the service on Dec. 20, 2002, after determining that proposed water releases from upstream reservoir on the Missouri River may affect threatened and endangered species such as the piping plover, least tern, and pallid sturgeon. The corps provided the service a biological assessment that estimated these impacts on Jan. 22. In a letter to the corps sent March 5, the service addressed continuing concerns that have been communicated in ongoing discussions with the corps since the biological assessment was received.

After analyzing the biological assessment, the service has determined that the consultation package lacks adequate new data on impacts to listed species, and that additional information from the corps is needed before the service can effectively analyze how the corps' proposed action will affect the threatened piping plover and endangered least tern and pallid sturgeon. Formal consultation under the Endangered Species Act is required to ensure that any actions included in the AOP will not jeopardize the long-term survival of these federally listed species.

"There are a number of critical pieces of information that the corps needs to provide the service before we can begin our formal consultation. We need more information before we can ensure that management of the Missouri River system does not jeopardize the threatened and endangered species," said Ralph Morgenweck, director of the service's Mountain-Prairie Region. "Realizing that the corps needs to operate the system for the upcoming water-use season, we will make every effort to expedite this process as soon as we receive their information."

Since 1990, the service has provided the corps with two final biological opinions regarding Missouri River operations and two draft opinions regarding the Missouri River Master Manual and the 2002 Annual Operating Plan. All four opinions determined that current operations jeopardize the long-term survival of the least tern, piping plover, and pallid sturgeon.

The biological opinions contained recommendations (referred to as Reasonable and Prudent Alternatives) that would minimize harm to the species while other authorized uses of the river continue in compliance with the Endangered Species Act. To date, these flow recommendations have not been implemented by the corps.

The corps' Final 2002-2003 AOP specifies a steady-release water plan, that would increase flows from Gavins Point Dam after spring runoff abates and hold these flows steady until mid-August. Releases would be based on what the corps predicts will be necessary to support navigation during the lowest flow months (i.e. August and September). For the 2003 season this would be approximately 30,000 cfs.

In a departure from the original 2002-2003 AOP, the corps has indicated to the service that it now prefers a flow-to-target water release plan because of its water conservation benefits. Under this plan, water releases from Gavins Point Dam would be gradually increased throughout the tern and plover nesting season (May 15 to Aug. 15) to meet water levels necessary to support barge traffic as the tributaries below the dam dry up.

Under the flow-to-target scenario, the service is concerned that increased water flow could threaten tern and plover nests, eggs, and chicks. The corps has proposed removing eggs and chicks to their captive rearing facility.

The service, the corps, and the State Fish and Game Departments within the Missouri River Basin had previously agreed that the captive rearing facility would be used for emergency flood or dam safety purposes only. The service will review the request to relocate birds and make recommendations based on the long-term conservation needs of the species.

During normal water years, inflows from the lower tributaries provide enough water to maintain barge traffic on the lower Missouri River between Sioux City, IA and St. Louis, MO. Since the majority of these tributaries are located downstream from the area where terns and plovers nest, the inflows would not threaten nests, chicks, and eggs.

The AOP does not address a third option (summer flows identified in the service's 2000 biological opinion), which the service believes will protect threatened and endangered species and provide greater water conservation benefits than either steady-release or flow-to-target water operations.

In 2002, the corps operated under a flow-to-target scenario, but, due to service concerns over take of endangered and threatened birds, the corps did not increase mid-summer flows above 25,500 cfs. This operation maintained available sandbar habitat, kept nests above water, and allowed terns and plovers to successfully nest and rear their young.

The service's flow recommendations, as provided in the 2000 biological opinion, call for a spring rise on an average of once every three years except during flood or drought conditions beginning in 2003. In light of the ongoing drought in the Missouri River Basin, there is not expected to be sufficient water in the Missouri River System available in 2003 to allow the corps to support a spring rise.

The service's recommendations also provide for summer low flows. Declining summer flows would keep tern and plover nests above water and prevent hatchlings from being washed downstream. It would also provide and improve shallow, slow water habit to allow young fish to rest, feed, and grow until they are capable of negotiating main channel currents.

In addition to the flow-to-target analysis, the service is requesting that the corps provide comparative information for other water release plans including steady releases, the service's flow recommendations from the 2000 biological opinion, and the corps' 2002 summer operations, to see how these water plans compare in providing water conservation benefits and species protection.

Information is also requested regarding habitat availability. The biological assessment also does not address the effects of a flow-to-target water plan on the pallid sturgeon or the newly designated critical habitat for the piping plover.

On Jan. 22, the service also received a second biological assessment from the corps regarding the operation of the Missouri River Mainstem Reservoir System as described by the corps' current Master Water Control Manual (Master Manual) and relating to the corps' Dec. 20 request to reinitiate formal consultation. After reviewing both the AOP and Master Manual sets of documents, the service determined the top priority to be consultation for the 2003 AOP. The corps and the service have agreed to meet in the near future in order to continue addressing the challenges of managing the Missouri River System.

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