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Efforts to conserve more Missouri River water in upstream reservoirs, at the expense of downriver barge shipping, suffered a setback Tuesday in a Senate committee.
Recent drought has plunged lake levels to record lows on the Missouri's big reservoirs in Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota, prompting desperate measures from lawmakers laboring to finish spending bills for the year.
The Senate Appropriations Committee last week voted to halt water releases from the reservoirs, which would end barge shipping immediately, mostly in Missouri but also in Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas.
The panel essentially reversed itself Tuesday, as Missouri Sen. Kit Bond inserted a measure that denies funding for the drought conservation measure into another spending bill.
Without the releases, Bond told The Associated Press, farmers would face higher costs and shipping delays, birds and fish would lose new habitat and communities could lose power.
"This is a disaster all up and down the river," said Bond, a Republican who champions the grain and shipping industries. "It would have a huge impact."
Disaster is facing upriver communities, too, lawmakers from those states argued. Drought threatens to trim fish populations and otherwise impair the upriver economy that revolves around recreation. Some communities have also experienced problems with intakes for their drinking water.
"If we're going to have pain on the Missouri River, everybody ought to share that pain," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. "Downstream states are sitting there fat and happy, and upstream states are seeing their reservoirs drained."
Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., said marinas can't reach water, farmers can't irrigate and "the impact to recreation and agriculture has been devastating."
"But that is not the end of it: It's not the impact on us; it's the impact on the river, and should we have another really serious dry year, are we going to ruin our reservoirs? We got no more water to release," Burns said.
Said Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., "This is nothing more than Sen. Bond playing king of the hill."
Because the full Senate must approve the committee's actions, lawmakers on both sides expect another showdown on the issue.
The drought conservation provision was approved last week as part of an Interior Department spending bill, while Bond's language is part of a bill funding housing and veterans' programs. The practice of trying to make policy by amending a spending bill frequently draws criticism, and the latest Missouri River finagling is no exception.
"It's really no way to run a river," said Chad Smith, Nebraska-based spokesman for the conservation group American Rivers. "We need to find a better way to manage this river that avoids people running to their member of Congress to get a rider stuck in here and there. Then decisions don't get made that are beneficial to everyone and the river."
Smith said that continuing to release water amid severe drought is a temporary solution that carries drastic long-term consequences.
"You may make some people feel good now, but everybody's going to feel bad next year, and it will keep getting worse," Smith said.
Problems on the Missouri mean problems on the Mississippi River, which handles about 10 times more grain shipments and gets more than half its water from the Missouri, which empties into the Mississippi at St. Louis.
Nearly two-thirds of the nation's grain exports float along the middle Mississippi River on their way to overseas markets, according to the St. Louis-based shippers' group MARC 2000.
In the Senate, the drought conservation provisions sought by upriver senators would have forced the Army Corps of Engineers to halt releases when levels drop below 40 million acre feet. An acre foot is the amount of water one foot deep covering a flat acre of land.
It's a higher threshold that would have allowed shipping last year, but not this year and probably not in 2005. Currently, levels must drop below 31 million acre feet for the corps to commence drought conservation.
On Tuesday, storage in the big three reservoirs was 35.9 million acre feet, down from 36.1 million acre feet last week, said Paul Johnston, an Omaha, Neb., spokesman for the corps.