U.S. Geological Survey

Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey Columbia Environmental Research Center release a female pallid sturgeon in the Yellowstone River.

Objections are flying in Montana against a proposal that would change flows from the Fort Peck Dam to more closely mimic spring runoff, in hopes of saving the pallid sturgeon from extinction.

Among those filing objections to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal are Gov. Greg Giannforte, who urged the Corps to provide more time for public comment, and Richland County Commissioners, who said the plan will interfere with the entire irrigation season for farmers who depend on water from the Missouri River for irrigation. Sen. Steve Daines also weighed in, urging for a longer comment period, a public meeting, and for inclusion of all state agencies before proceeding with the project.

“I continue to hear concerns from Montana water users, land owners, farmers and ranchers over unanswered questions, the need for in person meetings and to bring the state to the table,” he said.

Manipulating river levels during a drought year is a particularly bad idea, Gianforte said in a letter to the Corps. “(That) could flood water users in late spring and deprive water users during hot summer months when moisture is most critical.”

The plan also doesn’t say how damages from altered releases would be handled, Gianforte said. The Corps estimated that higher flows in the spring would cost farmers up to $7.5 million, plus cause $8 million in additional irrigation maintenance work annually across four counties, including Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

Fort Peck dam was built in 1933, and it’s part of a series of dams researchers believe interfered with the spawning run for pallid sturgeon on the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers. The species was listed as endangered in 1990. Game and Fish has been restocking pallid sturgeon with hatchery-raised small fry from the wild fish that remain, but researchers estimate there are only 150 wild sturgeon left in the river.

It has not been too long ago that the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project was fighting for its survival in the court system, after environmental groups filed suit against a fish bypass project they said would not work well enough. They wanted to remove the Glendive intake diversion dam altogether.

In this case, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposes increasing the flow on the Missouri River to 16,000 cubic feet per second near Wolf Point for three days in April, then lowering it to 12,000 cubic feet per second until the end of May.

Not all the water for this would come from Fort Peck. Some would also come from the Milk River, which enters the Missouri just below the dam.

After that, the river’s flow would be lowered 1,000 cubic feet per second each day to 8,000 cubic feet per second and then held there until Sept. 1. This is to slow larval drift of the fish, in hopes that the small fry will be mature enough to survive in the anaerobic environment at the headwaters to Lake Sakakawea.

Variations of this plan look at different dates to test which are more effective. The tests would run over a period of three to five years.

The problem, Richland County Commissioners said, is that the listed timing is also a critical time for farmers, and most of them will require a flow of at least 10,500 cubic feet per second to take in water when they need it.

“Under agricultural operating conditions, those are not ‘temporary’ or ‘short-term’ losses. That will impact the entire year,” they wrote in their comments about the proposal.

Timing is everything for most agricultural varieties,. Farmers need the right moisture in the right timeframe. While the number of days might seem to be a small percent of the overall growing season, Having so many days below operable conditions for irrigation could be catastrophic for the entire growing season if that moisture isn’t there when it is needed.

What’s missing from the Corps analysis, Richland County Commissioners said, is any sort of expert agronomic assessment of things like sedimentation effects following such high flows, contracted crops, necessary crop rotation.

Impacts to Sidney Sugars, meanwhile, which is the sole market for sugar beets in the region, were completely ignored by the Corps, Richland County Commissioners said.

“The impacts (of this) could be lethal to the factory,” Commissioners wrote. “This would foist devastating impacts upon an entirely different and additional set of 54,000 flood irrigated acres in the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project, to which the DEIS is oblivious.”

Farmers, meanwhile have no safety net for these tests. There is no crop insurance that will cover the losses, and the U.S. Army Corps cannot mitigate the costs or indemnify the losses.

“the uninsured, indemnified, uncompensated loss of one crop can put many a farmer out of business,” Commissioners wrote. “Three such losses from three miscalculated test flows would ruin most farms. This is not temporary. That is not short-term. That is the farm.”

Farmers will also need more time than one year to plan for these test flows, Commissioners said, to ensure crop viability throughout the test period.

Meanwhile, the region is in a terrible drought situation — the worst possible timing to be playing with irrigation flows, Commissioners said.

“A rush to make 2022 the first year of test releases is ill-timed both for irrigation and for the pallid sturgeon,” they wrote. “A drought year is a particularly bad year not to have reliable irrigation. For the sturgeon, the released water needs to be warmer than what is provided from the bottom of the reservoir. The release should be from the spillway using shallower and warmer water. This easily might not be available in the looming drought conditions.”

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