Public calls for changes to protect Missouri River

The operation of the Missouri River and its tributaries needs to change to meet the next century's needs, audience members told the Corps of Engineers during a public meeting Friday in Yankton.

An estimated 60 persons attended the Missouri River Authorized Purposes Study (MRAPS) meeting at the Riverfront Event Center. The Yankton event was part of a series of 30 general meetings and 11 tribal-focused meetings throughout the basin.

The Corps will use the public input in drafting its recommendations to Congress, said Mark Harberg, program manager for the Corps' Omaha District.

"We want to give the public an opportunity to tell us what is important to them throughout the basin," he said. "We are about two-thirds of the way through this series of meetings. We have had across-the-board comments, from flood risk management to recreation to sedimentation issues."

The Corps could recommend everything from maintaining the status quo to an overhaul of the river's uses, Harberg said. Comments will be taken until Sept. 20.

"We will look at all eight of the authorized purposes and see if changes are warranted," he said. "We will look at the specific comments and see what people think is important."

Much has changed along the river and in American life since the Pick-Sloan Act was enacted in 1944, Harberg said. The congressional mandate of a study and the MRAPS process provide a chance to chart the river's long-term future, he said.

"It's important to study the river and its infrastructure 66 years later," he said.

During Friday's open house prior to the meeting, Yankton City Commissioner Dave Carda said the community's future is closely tied to the fate of the Missouri River. For example, the city relies on the river for its water supply.

Carda added that he would like to see an emphasis on recreation, which affects both Yankton's economy and ecology. He noted the large number of campers and boaters, who in turn bring an influx of dollars to the region.

"Tourism is big. You see all the people who go out (to the river) every weekend," he said.

Private efforts, such as citizens who help with the annual river clean-up, also promote the local quality of life and show local interest in the river, Carda said. He would like to see an emphasis on fighting sediment and maintaining the wild and scenic river.

"I would like to see (the Corps) keep the river in its natural state," he said.

Yankton benefits from hosting one of the MRAPS meetings and pressing its particular concerns, Carda said.

"Anything looked at now for this study helps us 20 to 50 years down the road," he said.

Friday's meeting saw 11 individuals offer formal comments.

District 19 State Sen. Frank Kloucek (D-Scotland) emphasized he didn't attend the meeting to criticize the Corps.

"I'm not a Corps basher — I'm a Corps supporter," he said.

Kloucek spoke of his concerns with growing sedimentation, particularly in the Springfield area.

"Sediment is the No. 1 issue as far as I'm concerned," he said. "But breaching of the dams is absolutely the last resort."

Kloucek spoke of the multitude of ways the current river use benefits southeast South Dakota and northeast Nebraska. He listed irrigation, flood control, water supply and hydropower.

The Missouri River has remained a crucial source for the B-Y Rural Water District, Kloucek said. However, he noted issues at times with cloudiness of the water.

Kloucek opposes privatization of federal dams. "Let's keep public projects public," he said.

He noted the achievements on the river despite its naysayers. "We need to make positive changes with the 'we,' not the 'I,' word. Never say never. We need to find positive solutions for the long-term future," he said.

Clay County Commissioner Jerry Wilson of rural Vermillion spoke of the need to maintain the biological diversity of the river, noting that the Corps needs to take steps blocking inappropriate development along the river.

"As far as I'm concerned, the recreation river is the crown jewel of our county," he said.

The recent series of downpours, which has filled the reservoirs, shows the need for flood control, Wilson said.

"With all of our riverfront development, people have been lulled into a false sense of security that the dams will protect them forever," he said.

As a county commissioner, Wilson said he sees the responsibility of local governments to create ordinances "to protect the integrity of the wild and scenic river, more or less, in its natural state."

Yankton resident Jim Cope said he realizes the large number of competing interests up and down the river.

"I recognize the Corps has an impossible task," he said. "There are so many demands made for you (Corps officials) to consider on our river. There is no way everyone is going to be satisfied."

However, Cope called for setting priorities. For him, the top areas should be water quality, recreation, flood control and water supply. He would place irrigation as a lower priority.

Cope also called for stepping up efforts for bank stabilization and against sedimentation. "We see what Niobrara looks like. Without help, that may be what we look like (in the future)," he said.

On the other hand, Cope expressed strong opposition to the creation of sandbars for endangered species. The money could be spent elsewhere with better results, he said.

Clay County resident Tom Davidson said that climate change must be taken into consideration when planning long-term action on the Missouri River.

"By failing to fully integrate the change of climate, this (Corps) study has little value," he said.

The Western Governors Association has predicted a temperature increase of 4 to 13 degrees in the Western states, which already show a higher level of climate change than the rest of the nation, Davidson said.

"We have smaller snowpack, earlier snowmelt and the need for more flood control," he said. "There is more winter rain, more evaporation and less ground water."

The Missouri River will be called upon to relieve periods of drought, Davidson said. The Corps must also take into account emergency preparedness and response to crises, he said.

"The future will be variable at best, and to rely on the status quo is at your own risk," he said.

Vermillion resident Dean Spader called for preserving the wild and scenic river. In many ways, the river resembles a ditch more than a living thing, he said.

"Five percent of the Missouri River is designated wild and scenic. The other 1,900 miles (of the river) is developed," he said. "I don't think it's too much to ask that 5 percent be preserved in a wild and scenic state."

Bank stabilization must become a priority, Spader said, predicting major flooding in the long-term future. He also called for recognition of climate change and the impact of chemicals on the soil, which affect the river, he said.

Brad Schardin, manager of Southeastern Electric in Marion, emphasized the need for maintaining strong hydropower.

"Hydroelectric is the underpinning of the whole rural electric system," he said. "We need to assure the affordability of our three to four customers per mile."

Hydropower benefits not only rural America but the entire nation, Schardin said.

"The economic development benefits of the Missouri River tend to be underestimated," he said. "Hydropower is one of the (nation's) most renewable resources."

Two wildlife organizations were represented during Friday's meeting.

Jeff Decker, representing South Dakota Walleyes Unlimited, spoke of the problems that sediment and bank erosion present for the life cycle of the river.

Jan Nicolay, representing South Dakota Wildlife, said the Missouri River exerts "a significant impact on our economy" and called for making recreation a priority in the Corps study.

Norma Wilson of rural Vermillion likewise urged that a priority be given for recreation and the pristine nature of the wild and scenic river. She noted the pollutants that harm habitat.

While supporting recreation in general, Wilson said she did not consider jet skis as the best recreational use of the river.

"We have to try and maintain the great natural resource that we have," she said.

Don Foley, who farms along the Missouri River, called for the protection of the water supply.

"We also need less barge (traffic)," he said. "We don't want to be the water tower for the rest of the United States."

Foley said he favored efforts to protect endangered species but noted that efforts need to take into account the evolution of species over time. Those millions of dollars might be spent in other ways, he said.

Foley added that he "finds it heartbreaking" to see the increased sediment and debris along the Missouri River.

Wagner resident Leo Holzbauer pointed out that Charles Mix County contains 102 miles of Missouri River shoreline. Under the Pick-Sloan Act of 1944, river bottom was flooded and 580,000 acres of South Dakota soil was taken out of production, he said.

The state has never seen the full benefits or compensation from the loss of its land, Holzbauer said. In the same way, South Dakota must not be neglected in the Corps' future plans for the Missouri River, he said.

"I am very adamant that we don't just pass this water supply down the river for someone else to use," he said. "Let's preserve it for the use of South Dakota."

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