Let it flow. Endangered least terns nest on sandbars, which are shored up by river fluctuations.

Panel: Missouri River Needs to Flow

Natural water flows in the Missouri River basin must be restored if the river's ecosystem is to survive, according to a report released today by the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academies of Science in Washington, D.C. That could require controversial steps such as relocating communities and ending some barge traffic.

The 3767-kilometer-long Missouri River, which stretches from western Montana almost to St. Louis, supports an ecosystem rich in plants and animals that was first described by Lewis and Clark 200 years ago. But dams, channel straightening and other human-made changes have destroyed habitat and helped put three species--the pallid sturgeon, least tern, and piping plover--on the endangered list. Federal biologists have recommended restoring spring floods and summer trickles to help fish spawn and to rebuild sandbars used by birds. But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the six main dams, has resisted this strategy, torn as it is between the interests of barge traffic, farmers, river communities, and environmentalists.

The academy report, by a panel chaired by Steven Gloss, a water policy expert with the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Arizona, says degradation of the Missouri ecosystem "is clear" and "will continue unless some portion of the hydrologic and geomorphic processes" is restored. That includes reinstating some historical fluctuations in flows and allowing the river's path to meander. The report says the corps should shelve ongoing revisions of its river management policy, and agencies involved in the river's management should create a new body including all interest groups. This group should develop an "adaptive management" plan reviewed by scientists that gives equal weight to ecological goals and economics. The report also says Congress needs to pass a Missouri River restoration law.

"It's a slam dunk affirmation of all the things we've been talking about and working on for years," says Chad Smith, head of the Nebraska office of American Rivers, an environmental group pushing restoration. "This will help us get the ball rolling."

Related sites

The NRC report, The Missouri River Ecosystem: Exploring the Prospects for Recovery
Environmental group advocating restoration