|By DOUG SCHMITZ
JOHNSTON, Iowa — The possible repercussions from the May 12 release of 9,000 cubic feet of water per second into the Missouri River hasn’t just worried western Iowa farmers but also has Iowa officials concerned the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ spring rise to spawn mitigation of an allegedly endangered species of fish has become politicized.
“The first spring rise (this year) was intended to be very small, hopeful that it would have no flooding impact,” said Jared Hill, governmental manager of grower and member services at the Iowa Corn Growers Assoc. (ICGA). “That is by design and the intent by the environmentalists and the Army Corps to increase the level of flooding in the future.
“A big problem is that now the precedent is set for this type of flooding and we can argue about how much water Iowa farmers receive,” he said. “But we have lost the battle as to whether the government can institute purposeful flooding on farmers for the benefit of an endangered species. When the increased floods come in the years to come, we will have little recourse.”
The Missouri River Project controversy stems from a 2002 BiologicalOpinion (BiOp) issuance to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) that said flora and fauna living in or along a river were “highly dependent on certain patterns of stream flow and habitat to assure their sustainability.”
The USFWS said the past management and regulation of the Missouri, as well as changing hydrological patterns, have had significant and adverse impacts on three endangered species: the piping plover, the interior least tern and the pallid sturgeon.
But Iowa officials said the Corps’ specific measures to recover the three endangered species never warranted the massive release of water that would possibly damage hundreds of western Iowa farm fields along the project’s designated path.
“The ICGA supports solutions based on science, not experiment,” said Hill and other ICGA board members in a statement to the Corps. ”The spring rise is an experiment, to see if the pallid sturgeon is helped.
“A spring rise has a real likelihood of economic harm not only to farmers but to rural and urban communities along the Missouri River. The people, businesses, and communities along the river should not have to endure purposeful flooding, when the outcome of species recovery is not certain,” said the September 2005 statement.
According to Hill, the USFWS said “having a spring rise like the ones that would have occurred on the river before it was altered by the channeling and placement of reservoirs would quell the sturgeon to spawn. However, this has never been proven, it is still just a theory.”
The Corps proposed the scheduled elevation of the Missouri River to aid the specific mitigation of the pallid sturgeon. At midnight on May 12, the Corps released 9,000 cubic feet of water per second from Gavin’s Point Dam in Yankton, South Dakota, with additional water eventually released, exceeding 25,000 cubit feet per second by May 22.
On April 2, 2002, the Corps’ Missouri River Mitigation Project acquired about 30,700 acres of mitigation lands along the lower Missouri River and has been establishing 28 mitigation sites for fish and wildlife habitat in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska.
Prior to the action, Congress had authorized the Corps in 2002 to acquire 166,750 acres for fish and wildlife mitigation projects, which represented almost one-third of the original river habitat alleged to be lost due to “channelization” of the lower Missouri River and reportedly the most ambitious riverine habitat restoration plan in the world.
According to the April 2002 Corps report, Congress also authorized the Corps to acquire and develop 48,100 acres in 1986 and another 118,650 acres in 1999.
But for the last 15 years, the Coalition to Protect the Missouri River, a nonprofit group representing mainly commerce, navigation and agricultural interests, has been fighting the planned release through legislative and regulatory means.
Mark Salvador, Iowa Farm Bureau Federation national policy advisor and member of the Coalition, still questioned the possible politicization of the Missouri River project by environmental leftists seeking to harm U.S. farmers.
The Coalition said the May 12 flooding was based on guesswork instead of proven scientific fact and was risky considering Iowa’s notoriously unpredictable spring weather.
“This action is basically an experiment, with little scientific evidence that an endangered species will benefit. The Corps is playing the role of Mother Nature and at the same time, trying to outguess her,” Hill said.
“If a local meteorologist gets the forecast wrong, people may mention it over a cup of coffee,” he said. “If the Corps is wrong about this forecast, farmers will mention it in a conversation with their banker.”
Dave Sieck, an ICGA board member involved in Missouri River issues, said a report last September by the U.S. Geological Survey indicated that 75 percent of another allegedly endangered species tracked – the shovelnose sturgeon – had spawned on its own, without the man-made flooding.
The ICGA also remains concerned that the Risk Management Assoc. (RMA) wouldn’t be paying crop insurance claims for losses due to the government’s flooding, because it is “not a natural event,” Hill added.
After making several attempts, the Corps declined further comment.
This farm news was published in the May 31, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.