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2018 ushers in major milestones for the Missouri River Recovery Program

Published Jan. 1, 2019
Updated: Jan. 1, 2019
The Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee (MRRIC) meets in Kansas City for their plenary session Nov. 27, 2018.

The Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee (MRRIC) meets in Kansas City, Nebr. for their plenary session Nov. 27, 2018.

The efforts of those involved in the Missouri River Recovery Program culminated in several significant milestones in 2018, including receiving a biological opinion with a “no-jeopardy” finding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, signing the Missouri River Recovery Management Plan Environmental Impact Statement Record of Decision, as well as the Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee’s 10-year anniversary celebration.

The MRRP allows the Corps to meet our Endangered Species Act obligations so we can operate our Missouri River projects for the congressionally authorized purposes of flood control, water supply, water quality, navigation, hydroelectric power generation, irrigation, recreation, and fish and wildlife.  Operating for the eight purposes while maintaining compliance with the ESA is further complicated by scientific uncertainty surrounding the pallid sturgeon. That means the MRRP has to use the best science and engineering available and be ready to implement management actions when needed. All of this requires transparency and significant collaboration with other federal agencies, states, tribes, and basin stakeholders. This year’s accomplishments mark substantial steps in furthering the MRRPs goals.

Final Biological Opinion

The Missouri River ecosystem provides habitat for a wide variety of wildlife, including three federally listed threatened or endangered species. The endangered least tern and the threatened piping plover are shorebirds that use non-vegetated sandbars and reservoir beaches for nesting. The river currently does not naturally build enough of the habitat these birds need to nest and feed. In addition, Corps water releases may flood nests if they are occur too low. The endangered pallid sturgeon is an ancient fish species that lives in the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Changes to the river’s flow and loss of habitat may be contributing to the pallid sturgeon's decline. Section 7 of the ESA requires the Corps of Engineers to consult with the USFWS to determine potential effects of a proposed action on threatened or endangered species. Such consultations may lead the USFWS to issue a biological opinion.

Accordingly, the USFWS sent a biological opinion to the Corps Apr. 13 concerning the operation of the Missouri River Mainstem Reservoir System operation, the operation and maintenance of the Bank Stabilization and Navigation Project, the operation of the Kansas River Reservoir System, and the implementation of the Missouri River Recovery Management Plan.

The USFWS sent a draft to the Corps Feb. 8, which in turn transmitted the draft biological opinion to the Independent Science Advisory Panel of the Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee. The ISAP supported the science behind the biological opinion, and presented the results of their review to the MRRIC plenary session Mar. 27. The USACE formally transmitted the ISAP response along with the Corps supporting information to the USFWS Apr. 3.

In the final biological opinion cover letter addressed to David Ponganis, director of Programs of the Corps’ Northwestern Division, Michael Thabault, USFWS assistant regional director for Ecological Services writes:

“I would like to thank you and the USACE staff for working so closely with the Service on developing a very complex and cutting edge program to further conservation of threatened and endangered species within the Missouri River Basin. The Service firmly believes that this approach will improve conditions for protected species through time while ensuring the USACE's ability to meet the authorized purposes on the Missouri River and allowing better opportunities to address human considerations throughout the basin.”

Thabault also noted that the biological opinion and proposed action will not jeopardize the existence of the pallid sturgeon, piping plover or interior least tern, and will not destroy or adversely modify designated critical habitat for the piping plover.

Record of Decision

Another significant accomplishment for the MRRP was the signed “Record of Decision” for the Missouri River Recovery Management Plan Environmental Impact Statement Nov. 20, which outlines future recovery program activities along the river that will allow the Corps to continue operating its Missouri River projects for all their authorized purposes while complying with the ESA and other federal laws.

“Getting to this point reflects the tremendous efforts of a great team of partners and stakeholders who truly care about the future of the Missouri River,” said Northwestern Division Commander Brig. Gen. D. Peter Helmlinger. “The amount of coordination required for something that involves such a cross-section of federal, state, local and tribal organizations can’t be understated.”

Using the best available science, the Corps developed the Missouri River Recovery Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement in cooperation with the USFWS, and with unprecedented engagement with MRRIC, which includes members representing basin tribal governments, a host of federal agencies, states and stakeholders.

Cooperating agencies in the MRRMP-EIS included the USFWS, National Park Service, Western Area Power Administration, Bureau of Reclamation, and States of Wyoming, Nebraska, and South Dakota.

The selected alternative in the EIS is part of the proposed action in the Corps final biological assessment.   The proposed action allows the Corps to continue to operate its Missouri River projects for all authorized purposes while complying with all applicable laws, regulations, and treaty and trust responsibilities, and provides for a structured, scientific process to monitor, evaluate, and adjust actions through adaptive management, which includes collaborative engagement with the MRRIC.

10 Years of MRRIC

Another noteworthy MRRP event for 2018 was the 10-year anniversary celebration of MRRIC’s formation, which the committee held in conjunction with its fall plenary meeting Nov. 27-29 in Kansas City, Missouri.

“Since its initial meeting in September 2008, MRRIC has sought to understand the complex scientific uncertainties associated with species recovery and to make recommendations on management actions to benefit the listed species that people with widely different perspectives can live with,” said MRRIC Chair, Gail Bingham. “While the challenges are great, the US Army Corps of Engineers, US Fish and Wildlife Service and MRRIC are working together to implement a plan that combines scientific research, actions based on best available science, and monitoring the results of those actions so adjustments can be made over time to increase the likelihood of success.”

Noteworthy attendees of the 10-year anniversary event included Mr. Ryan Fisher, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, Helmlinger and Kansas City District Commander Col. Douglas B. Guttormsen.

At the meeting, MRRIC members heard from Corps and USFWS scientists and the committee’s Independent Science Advisory Panel about developing new monitoring programs to inform the Missouri River Recovery Program’s activities. The committee also discussed findings from recent monitoring and scientific studies conducted as part of implementing the MRRP’s Science and Adaptive Management Plan. The committee elected a new vice-chairman, Mr. Bill Beacom.

The meeting’s plenary sessions were open to the public who had an opportunity to address the committee and the lead federal agencies—the Corps and USFWS at the end of each daily session.

MRRIC is a 70-member committee comprised of stakeholders and representatives of tribal, state and federal governments throughout the Missouri River Basin. This committee provides recommendations to federal agencies on current and future activities of the MRRP. The committee makes its substantive recommendations by consensus, meeting regularly at locations throughout the Missouri River Basin.

The meeting’s main purpose was to continue developing a shared understanding about the MRRP, including ongoing recovery actions in the Missouri River Basin.

For additional information regarding the MRRIC or if members of the public have specific questions, contact Ms. Gail Bingham, committee chair, by e-mail at mrric@usace.army.mil.

The MRRP regularly makes its progress available to the public throughout the year. This year, the MRRP website migrated over to the USACE Omaha District website, and the Corps is the main webmaster in charge of all MRRP pages. Visit https://www.nwo.usace.army.mil/mrrp/Contact-Us/ for MRRP and MRRIC contact information.

The Record of Decision is available online at: https://www.nwo.usace.army.mil/mrrp/mgmt-plan/ in the “Final Documents” section.