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Posted 3/18/2016

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By Jennifer Salak, Outreach Specialist

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District participated in a two-day symposium, hosted by the Yellowstone River Conservation District Council, last week in Billings, Montana, to discuss completion of the Yellowstone River Corridor Study and determine a path forward now that the cumulative effects assessment has been developed. 

The Yellowstone River Corridor Study, a comprehensive watershed study initiated in 2004, was authorized by Section 431 of the Water Resources Development Act of 1999 and cost-shared between the Corps and the YRCDC. The purpose of the study was to determine the hydrologic, biologic and socioeconomic impacts of development along 570 miles of the Yellowstone River corridor from Gardiner, Montana to the Missouri River confluence in western North Dakota.

According to Omaha District Commander Col. John Henderson, who provided remarks on the first day of the symposium, “Over the past twelve years, everyone involved in this study, including federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, Tribes and numerous other stakeholders, has truly embraced the concept of watershed planning and multi-agency collaboration in order to balance competing interests along the Yellowstone River.” Those interests include maintaining the historic, cultural and national significance of the river; ensuring the Yellowstone River remains a viable source of water for agriculture and industry; preserving the natural environment for riparian and aquatic wildlife; and providing flood protection for communities, transportation infrastructure and private property located near the river.

As part of the study process, scientific studies and in-depth analyses were conducted to develop several unique products such as a cultural inventory and channel migration zone maps. The cultural inventory documents the sentiments of agricultural, civic, recreational and residential interest groups and provides a human dimension for natural resource managers to consider when making environmental policy decisions about the Yellowstone River. Channel migration zone maps were developed to identify areas where the river channel is expected to migrate over the course of time. These maps can help communities be proactive and determine where (1) development should be avoided in order to reduce hazards to communities and reduce costly repairs to civil works structures and (2) aquatic and riparian habitat restoration efforts should be focused.

In 2015, the study team developed a comprehensive cumulative effects analysis report based on data collected and analyses conducted over the past twelve years. The report laid out recommended practices for developing land management strategies within the Yellowstone River corridor to ensure long-term ecological sustainability of the river while preserving the economic viability of residents and communities who rely on the river. A draft of the report was released for public comment in October 2015 and is in the process of being finalized by the Omaha District.

The second day of the YRCDC-hosted symposium included a roundtable discussion in which numerous federal and state agencies, including the Omaha District, and NGOs weighed in on their role as the YRCDC moves forward. Brad Thompson, Chief of Planning at the Omaha District, discussed how the Corps of Engineers can partner with state and local agencies on future projects through cost-sharing opportunities. “Under existing congressional authorities,” said Thompson, “the Corps of Engineers can provide support ranging from technical assistance to small or large scale planning, design, and construction of ecosystem restoration or flood risk management projects along the Yellowstone River.”

Although the symposium marks completion of the Yellowstone River Corridor Study, the relationships built throughout the study process are far-reaching. According to YRCDC Chairman Don Youngbauer, “in the past, the Corps has provided expertise in planning and building projects along the Yellowstone River. Now that the corridor study is complete and we have a better understanding of the complete picture of the river, I am encouraged by the Corps’ commitment to use that same expertise to help develop restoration solutions that will last for many years to come.”