The national tug of war over the drought-thinned Missouri River paused Friday as federal lawmakers soaked up the realities of a regional dry spell and the river’s Omaha managers tinkered to keep enough water flowing.
The Army Corps of Engineers is continuing to ratchet down to minimum water releases into the Missouri from Gavins Point Dam in northeast Nebraska as drought conditions persist across the same basin that saw extensive flooding a year ago.
“The drought is the real driver here,” said Jody Farhat, chief of the corps’ river management office in Omaha.
The runoff forecast for 2012 is 79 percent of normal.
Farhat said that low Missouri River levels are nearing critical points for a number of municipalities and power plants in Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas. She said river engineers are working closely with those downstream to ensure water supplies to the extent possible.
Corps studies indicate that the Missouri’s big upstream reservoirs will begin the 2013 runoff season with about 8 million acre-feet less water than the dams were designed to optimally hold. Oahe Reservoir in South Dakota, for example, is expected to start the runoff season 10 to 11 feet below the desired operating level.
That has revived a decades-old quarrel that pits boaters, fishermen and tourism interests against communities downstream and companies that rely on the Mississippi to do business.
The struggle has reached the White House. Officials from Montana to West Virginia wrote to President Barack Obama urging him to intervene — or not to intervene — on the issue of whether water from the Missouri’s upstream reservoirs should be released into the Mississippi River to ease low water levels that have imperiled commercial traffic. Missouri River water accounts for about 78 percent of the Mississippi at St. Louis.
Downstream states warn that shipping on the Mississippi could come to a near standstill sometime after Christmas along a 180-mile stretch between St. Louis and the southern Illinois town of Cairo.
The Mississippi is a corridor on which everything from grain to coal, chemicals and petroleum products is transported.
But if the water is released, upstream communities worry that the toll of the drought could be even worse next year for farms and towns that depend on the Missouri.
The corps this week turned back requests by federal lawmakers and the barge industry to release more of the Missouri, believing the Mississippi still will remain open to shipping.
Army Assistant Secretary Jo-Ellen Darcy noted this week’s revised National Weather Service forecast, which showed the Mississippi’s level wasn’t falling as rapidly as expected. She also said the corps is hastening its push to rid the river of rock obstacles south of St. Louis that endanger barges when the water level is low.
Darcy also reinforced what the corps has been insisting for weeks: Reducing the Missouri’s flow is necessary because low levels in its upper basin could negatively affect recreation in the upper Missouri while also affecting drinking water supplies, wildlife habitat and hydropower.
Darcy added that the corps is required by Congress to act in the best interest of the Missouri River, with what happens on the Mississippi incidental.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., was not satisfied and said the corps would be to blame if shipping on the Mississippi is slowed or shut down.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Darcy’s response was understandable, in that the corps is the Missouri’s steward, but he will seek another meeting next week that includes industries depending on the Mississippi.
The corps continues to look at options to ensure the Mississippi stays open.
Last month, the agency released water from an upper Mississippi River reservoir in Minnesota, adding a few inches of depth. A corps spokesman in St Louis said the agency also is considering reducing some lake levels, allowing water to flow into Mississippi tributaries.
Farhat, the Omaha manager, said her office has years of experience managing a drought-stricken Missouri River. The difference this year is that the Missouri basin drought is coinciding with a deep drought in the upper Mississippi, Illinois and Ohio river basins.
The Omaha office is restricted in how much water it can release during winter because of the threat of ice-jam flooding. Another limiting factor this year is flood repair work under way at the Gavins Point spillway.
Because of below-normal reservoir storage, Farhat said, it is likely that the corps will be able to supply only minimum releases for the first half of next year’s barge navigation season. If dry conditions persist through the spring, the navigation season could be further reduced.
Farhat said the drought has reinforced the value of the Missouri’s reservoir system to provide water during drought.
“The nation built these great reservoirs in the prairies of the northern plains to ensure that this part of the country can endure a long drought like that of the 1930s and early 1940s,’’ she said.
Records show that the Missouri dwindled to a relative trickle during the pre-dam years.
“Drinking water in Omaha would be a very severe issue if we ever got back to something like that,’’ she said. “Because Omaha is in the middle, we take the river for granted.’’
This report includes material from the Associated Press.
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