Federal study to examine Missouri River’s ecosystem

A federal study for the Missouri River will last seven years, focusing on the entire river system and not local concerns, the project leader and manager said Thursday, Aug. 20.

The vast scope of the study – known as the Missouri River Ecosystem Restoration Plan, or MRERP – means much time needs to be taken, said Randy Sellers with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Omaha.

Sellers spoke with the Yankton Press & Dakotan during Thursday's open house in Vermillion, sponsored by the Corps and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

"This (process) is scheduled to be done in 2016. The time frame seems very lengthy, but we take this seriously," he said. "You are dealing with one-sixth of the United States (land area). It's the longest river in the country. We have to give it due diligence."

MRERP will not focus on local issues such as sediment or bank erosion, Sellers said. "This is not going to be a laundry list of site-specific projects. But I could see a list go on from there," he said.

Sellers said he could not comment on the proposed $10 billion oil refinery that Texas-based Hyperion Resources wants to build near Elk Point. However, he said construction of the facility would be factored into the MRERP study.

"We are planning for conditions 30 to 50 years from now," he said.

The MRERP study will also look at existing management plans, such as sandbar construction near Vermillion, Sellers said.

During Thursday's presentation, USFWS project leader Wayne Nelson-Stastny summed up the MRERP goals in three words: mitigate, recover and restore.

The Missouri River has lost 3 million acres of natural habitat, Nelson-Stastny said. Non-native fish are dominating native species, with 51 of 67 native fish species now considered rare or declining. Native fish food resources have declined 70 percent.

During Thursday's presentation, Kansas City-based Corps biologist Curtis Hoagland urged the audience to give its input.

"This is an awfully big basin, and we are a small team," he said. "You are out on the street every day. We hope you can give us answers."

After the presentation, a number of audience members shared their concerns with the Press & Dakotan.

Yankton Sioux Tribe vice president John Stone expressed particular worries about cultural issues – such as traditional burial sites – and the fate of endangered species. In that respect, American Indians bring a special perspective to the table, he said.

The tribes are also interested in the economic potential, with about $600 million spent annually on recreation in the Missouri River basin, Stone said. In addition, the tribes are watching a bill that would reauthorize the 1944 flood control act, he said.

In the end, the Missouri River plays a major role for both Indians and non-Indians, Stone said. "We want this (river) preserved for future generations," he said.

Another audience member, Jerry Wivinis of rural Beresford, said he lives 12 miles from the proposed Hyperion refinery and believes the project would harm the river. The refinery is expected to process 400,000 barrels of oil a day.

"Is it a good idea to put an oil refinery in the middle of this (river basin)?" he asked. "Oil and water don't mix."

Sioux City consultant Skip Meisner, who represents Iowa on MRRIC, said he would like to see more bank stabilization between Vermillion and Newcastle, NE. However, he's pleased with the water quality below Gavins Point Dam near Yankton.

Tom Curran, the Corps' Fort Randall project manager at Pickstown, said Thursday's audience was the largest so far. "There is a lot of interest among local people," he said.

The public can submit comments by Dec. 1 either online at www.mrerp.org or by mail to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Attn: Jennifer Switzer, Project Manage, 601 East 12th Street, Kansas City MO 64106.

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