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Associated Press

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - Commercial navigators and recreational users may have problems this summer as a three-year drought continues to lower levels on the Missouri River, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials said.

The corps held a public meeting Wednesday to discuss its 2002 operating plan for the Missouri River. The government agency manages the amount of water released from the river's six reservoirs which extend from Montana to Nebraska.

Storage levels at the reservoirs are down around 9-to-15 feet and are at about 85 percent of their normal level, said corps spokesman Paul Johnston.

"There's enough water for navigation and enough water for everything else," he said.

However, barge operators will take the brunt of the lower water levels in their pocketbooks because they will have to operate with lighter loads.

That will translate into higher prices for farmers and companies moving their products on the river, he said.

The good news for farmers is that there is less risk of flooding this spring, Johnston said.

That may be offset by the cost to modify irrigation systems to reach the lower river.

The impact on irrigation will be felt mostly in North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana, where the reservoir levels continue to fall, he said.

About a dozen people attended the meeting, but none issued formal comments.

A few had questions about how the river levels will affect recreational boating in Nebraska and Iowa.

Some said they were afraid the lower states in the Missouri River region wouldn't get their fair share of water.

"The northern states have their recreation," said Mark Hamilton of Omaha, a recreational boater. "I just hope it's remembered we have ours too."

The 31-year-old architect represents a group of people who use the Dodge Park Marina in Omaha.

"I don't see any huge problems for us but it looks like the condition we have now will remain all summer," he said.

Public meetings on next year's operating plan for the river will be held in November. The corps is currently considering six alternatives for management of the river after 2003.

A final environmental draft impact statement naming a single preferred alternative for the revised Master Water Control Manual is expected to be released in late May.

More than 55,000 comments on the alternatives were submitted before the comment period ended in March, Johnston said.

The management plans include current water control provisions involving the river and its six reservoirs, and a full range of flow changes described by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Fish and Wildlife Service considers flows necessary to protect three bird and fish species listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The corps initially proposed a policy calling for higher spring flows and reduced summer flows, while retaining its authority to conserve water in upstream reservoirs to prevent downstream flooding.

The plan has angered farmers concerned that the higher flows would flood cropland, commercial barge interests facing a shortened season and some city leaders worried about river water invading municipal water systems during high water season.

The new manual will be implemented in March 2003.

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