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American Rivers names Missouri and Powder among nation's endangered rivers
LARRY MAYER/Gazette file photo The Missouri River, which feeds Fort Peck Lake, above, topped the list of the nation's most endangered rivers for the second year in a row. The listing was compiled by American Rivers, a national river conservation group.

Concerns that federal dam and reservoir operations are driving some species toward extinction put the Missouri River again at the top of American Rivers' list of the nation's endangered rivers.

The national conservation group today also included in its list the Powder River, which begins in Wyoming and flows north to the Yellowstone River in Montana, because of rapid growth in the coalbed methane industry, which discharges millions of gallons of poor quality water into the river each year.

The Missouri topped the list for the second year in a row; it is the ninth straight year the Missouri has made the list. The Powder is listed sixth, dropping one place from last year.

Since 1986, American Rivers has released its survey to highlight rivers where harm can be prevented or where on-going destruction can be stopped. The group, founded in 1973, is a national river conservation group with headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The organization this year called upon the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to adopt more river-friendly dam operations in its new management plan for the Missouri. The corps is in the midst of deciding how to manage those dams.

"If the corps commits to new dam operations this spring, the nation will celebrate the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition looking forward to a better future for the Missouri River," said Rebecca R. Wodder, president of American Rivers. "If the corps makes the wrong choice, the river's continued slide toward collapse will cast a pall over this historic occasion."

The agency is reviewing more than 55,000 public comments received on six water-control proposals and expects to select a preferred control plan in May.

The plan favored by American Rivers, along with the National Academy of Sciences, the Missouri River Basin Association and other conservation groups, would allow more water to be released in the spring and less in the summer, to mimic natural flow.

Dams preventing the seasonal rise and fall of water levels are blamed for the decline of dozens of fish and wildlife species in and along the river. Three species - the pallid sturgeon, piping plover and least tern - are now protected by the Endangered Species Act.

Supporters of a more natural flow say the corps has managed the river to protect the downstream barge industry, even though barges produce just $6.9 million in annual economic benefits, according to Corps of Engineers figures. Meanwhile, recreation and tourism bring at least $85 million into the region each year. A restored river with fish and wildlife would bring even more, they say.

Mark Albers, American Rivers' spokesman in Montana, said attitudes are changing and most states are warming to the idea of testing higher spring flows. "That's a real healthy step," he said. Releasing test flows from the Fort Peck Dam has been postponed because drought has reduced the amount of water available.

"In the interim, we need to work with farmers and ranchers and communities up there to prepare for this," Albers said. "We've got to find ways for people to live with the river and respect the flood plain."

A spring release test from Fort Peck would help to see if the flows cue spawning for pallid sturgeon, Johnston said. The test also would identify whether the spillway, built for emergencies, could handle longer-term flows, he said.

Endangered Rivers Here is American Rivers 2002 list of endangered rivers and what threatens them:

Missouri River in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dam operations

Big Sunflower in Mississippi. Corps flood control projects

Klamath in California and Oregon. Water supply and quality

Kansas in Kansas. Non-source pollution

White in Arkansas. Corps navigation

Powder and Wyoming. Coalbed methane

Altamaha in Georgia. Water withdrawal

Allagash in Maine. Wild and scenic violations

Canning in Alaska. Oil and gas development

Guadalupe in Texas. Water withdrawal

Apalachicola in Florida. Corps dredging

Releasing more water in the spring would mean higher lake levels in the summer, benefiting recreation, Albers said. "I think you can do that without sacrificing downstream uses," he said.

Paul T. Johnston, public affairs chief for the corps' Northwestern Division, said Monday, "We're trying to make the best decision for the folks in the basin for the future. It's quite a balancing act."

People in Montana and elsewhere think the flow tests are a good idea, Johnston said. But people downstream also have concerns about bank erosion, irrigation intakes and sediment deposits, he said. Indian tribes have told the corps they are concerned about erosion of cultural sites.Powder The Powder continues to face threats from coalbed methane development, American Rivers said. "There could be 139,000 coalbed methane wells in the Powder River Basin by the end of the decade," Wodder said. "Despite this, federal and state agencies have yet to formulate an adequate plan for minimizing the environmental consequences of drilling in the Powder River Basin."

A coalition of conservation groups has recommended that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming adopt its suggestions to help protect the basin. The recommendations include adapting management based on scientific information, imposing a moratorium on new federal coalbed methane leases and reclaiming disturbed areas before drilling proceeds in new areas.

American Rivers urged BLM to include the suggestions in its final environmental impact statement, which analyzes the environmental effects of an anticipated 51,000 coalbed methane wells. The final analysis is due later this year.

Drilling for the natural gas found in coal seams requires pumping out large quantities of ground water to release pressure that holds the methane in coal. The water generally is too salty for irrigation.

Developers typically store the water in containment ponds, discharge it to creeks or rivers or inject it back into the ground. Ranchers and irrigators in Wyoming and Montana are concerned about declining water quality and water resources from coalbed methane development.

About 80 percent of Wyoming residents get their drinking water from wells, but little is known about the effects of massive water withdrawals from coal aquifers on the region's water supply, American Rivers said.

Michele Barlow, with the Wyoming Outdoor Council, said the BLM recently predicted that 1.4 trillion gallons of ground water will be discharged over the next eight years. "The threat to the river and basin is of monster proportions," she said.

Jill Morrison, of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, said there are heightened concerns about the Powder this year because of BLM's environmental analysis. "The BLM is not proposing any more responsible or reasonable development scenarios that would help protect the Powder River," she said. The agency's proposed approach is to "just let the status quo go on," Morrison said.

BLM's Richard Zander, assistant field manager in the Buffalo office, said the agreement between Montana and Wyoming not to degrade the Powder and Little Powder rivers at the border will protect the Powder. BLM also will adopt its own stipulations on erosion and water handling to protect the watershed and the stipulations that are in the environmental document.

"Our intent is to have no erosion, no additional sedimentation," Zander said.

The BLM and the state of Montana are holding public meetings this week to gather comments on their draft environmental analysis of proposed coalbed methane development. The Billings hearing is tonight from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the MSU Library Building, Room 148.

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