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Controlled Missouri River Flood Aimed at Helping Fish


Work your way back up the river system and you will find the Army Corps of Engineers in the midst of controversy again. After more than a decade of lawsuits and bitter arguments, the Corps has triggered an intentional flood on the Missouri River. It's a gigantic experiment. Conservationists hope this test will help them understand why an ancient fish species has all but died out.

Frank Morris reports from member station KCUR, in Kansas City.

FRANK MORRIS reporting:

Gavins Point, in South Dakota, is the last of six major dams on the Missouri River. Just below it, the river looks much like it did a hundred years ago, wide, shallow and braided with sandbars.

Last week, volunteers like Clay Jenkins came to Gavins Point to help stock the Missouri with a species much older than the river itself, the Pallid Sturgeon.

Mr. CLAY JENKINS (Volunteer, Gavins Point, South Dakota): You know, I've been reading about this for years, and this is the, this fish that's pivoting the whole Missouri River.

MORRIS: These bony-looking, primitive fish can reach 80 pounds and live to be 60. While they've survived shifting continents and ice ages, the industrialization of the Missouri has nearly wiped them out.

Last Friday, the Army Corps of Engineers opened the valves a bit at Gavins Point Dam to do something nature no longer can: send a spring rise surging more than 800 miles toward the Mississippi.

About 150 miles downstream, at Wilson Island, Iowa, Aaron Delonay, an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, is helping his crew launch this flat-bottom boat to start another long day of searching for spawning sturgeon.

Mr. AARON DELONAY (Ecologist, U.S. Geological Survey): We hope to follow these fish as they move upstream and hopefully get closer and closer to determining where it is they spawn, when they spawn, and under what conditions do they spawn.

MORRIS: The spring rise is in full swing here today, but few other than the researchers and perhaps the fish will notice. The water rose almost two feet, much less than it would have in a typical spring flood before the dams were upstream.

After trolling past miles of tree-lined banks and a nuclear power plant, the boat's telemetry gear detects a fish fitted with a transmitter.

Mr. DELONAY: And actually, that's right where she is. She's between us and the bank.

MORRIS: It's a shovel-nosed sturgeon, a close relative of the Pallid. No one's ever witnessed a Pallid Sturgeon spawning, and with the species in sharp decline, Delonay admits that the chances of that happening this year are remote. He says, at best this spring rise will help ecologists conduct a better one next year.

Mr. DELANEY: This is a starting point. It has both positive and negative aspects to it. But essentially that's it.

(Soundbite of river crew)

MORRIS: Delonay says more sophisticated river management and work underway to recreate Pallid habitat could save the species. But political decisions governing a watershed more than twice the size of Texas don't come easy, or fast.

Farther downstream, at the Corps' Northwestern Division Headquarters in Omaha, a wall-sized map detailing the Missouri River Basin is posted behind Paul Johnston.

Johnston, who's with the Corps, says the spring rise was argued about, litigated and whittled down for a dozen years. Until lately, the Corps managed the Missouri strictly as an economic asset, one with hundreds of perpetually angry shareholders.

Mr. PAUL JOHNSTON (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers): That has been our challenge, to comply with the Endangered Species Act and respond to the concerns of people along the rest of the river. No small trick.

MORRIS: Steady wind is rustling leaves in large cottonwood trees 30 miles downstream from Kansas City, Missouri, where the river, now fast, wide and deep, churns past levees that shield Tom Waters' farm.

Mr. TOM WATERS (Farm Owner Along Missouri River): The science isn't there. They don't know if this is going to work or not. And they're just going to keep trying this, trying that, and all the time we're the ones at risk. And so it's scary.

MORRIS: It's also frightening to people way back upstream in Montana and the Dakotas who see any man-made spring rise tapping reservoirs already parched from six years of drought.

But observers up and down the river say it's clear that another party has now permanently joined the battle to control the flow of the Missouri River, and this one was here first.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.