FORSYTH — A big smile spread across Jo-Ellen Darcy’s face on Wednesday after she ceremoniously released a juvenile pallid sturgeon into the silty waters of the Yellowstone River.
The assistant secretary of the Army for civil works was touring the waterway between Hysham and here to get a firsthand view of a unique partnership that has developed between the federal government, state and local groups. The jet boat tour, led by the Yellowstone River Conservation District Council, attracted about 50 people.
Darcy oversees the Army Corps of Engineers, which has cooperated in a study of the Yellowstone River with the YRCDC since 2004.
“This is one of the highest-priority studies Omaha has and it’s a high priority nationwide,” said Greg Johnson of the Corps’ Omaha office. “We bring the money and some of the scientific expertise. The vision is local.”
The Yellowstone River is remarkable because it remains largely untamed by dams, except for diversion dams for irrigation. What the federal government has discovered over the years that protecting wild rivers in some places is easier than restoring those that have been armored with rock or channelized with levees to prevent flooding.
In hopes of ensuring the survival of the endangered pallid sturgeon, like the juvenile one that Darcy released, the Corps has been working to rebuild Intake Dam east of Glendive on the Yellowstone River.
The initial idea was to create a gradual rock ramp that would allow sturgeon to swim past what is now a barrier, while also allowing water to be diverted to the existing irrigation canal.
After putting a pencil to the cost of dumping trainloads of boulders into the river, though, and considering what the river might do to the rock during winter ice jams, the Corps has had to go back to the drawing board. An initial estimate of about $40 million for the work ballooned to $120 million.
The Corps is now considering alternatives, possibly to create a small side channel to the river to allow fish passage. That would require the agency to go through the environmental review process again and push back the date for the project’s completion.
Col. Robert Ruch, district commander for the Omaha Division of the Corps, said more data needs to be collected, such as drilling in the river channel to assess the substrate, before a new alternative is developed.
“Everyone wants to find a way to make this work,” he said.
However, it’s too soon to tell if a different plan would be any cheaper.
Corps engineers are finding that the Yellowstone River is unlike any other river system they have worked on. And until the work at Intake is completed, there will probably not be funding to do a similar project on Cartersville Dam upstream in Forsyth.
The Intake project alone could create another 167 miles of river habitat for pallid sturgeon to use as spawning grounds. That’s important because the theory is that pallid sturgeon larvae, after they hatch, are dying when they drift downstream into Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota. Extending the distance they drift may increase the chances that the larvae will live. Work at Cartersville could extend that range even farther.
“We’re just trying to restore the river system,” said George Jordan of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which provided the juvenile pallid sturgeons for release Wednesday.
Jordan noted that fossils of pallid sturgeons’ ancestors have been found dating back 78 million years.
“In the past 100 years we’ve changed their habitat in a geological blink of an eye,” he said.