Federal conservation money is about to be squandered on a rushed dam project in eastern Montana that will do little to save an endangered fish, according to conservation groups.
Thursday is the final day for public comments on a proposed Army Corps of Engineering modification of Intake Diversion Dam on the Yellowstone River northeast of Glendive. Based upon events at recent public meetings and the accelerated decision timeline, conservation groups doubt the agency is interested in what they have to say.
The Bureau of Reclamation intended to upgrade the existing wood-and-stone diversion dam with a more substantial modern one that would deliver water more reliably. The old dam provides irrigation water for about 54,000 acres running along the west side of the Yellowstone River.
But modification or elimination of the dam is necessary to save the endangered pallid sturgeon in Montana.
The pallid sturgeon was listed as endangered in 1990, and five years later, only 45 wild pallid sturgeon were found in the Upper Missouri and Yellowstone rivers upstream from the Fort Peck Dam, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2014 pallid sturgeon recovery plan. It’s unknown how many remain today, but it’s not many and they’re all senior citizens, around 50 years old or older. So they don’t have much time left.
Wild pallid sturgeon have been unable to produce younger generations because the Intake Dam cuts them off from spawning areas in the upper Yellowstone River.
To allow the fish to swim upstream of the dam, the most recent proposal from the Corps and the Bureau of Reclamation is to build a bypass channel around the dam. The old dam had a natural bypass channel but water flowed through it only during high water.
The problem is biologists aren’t sure a bypass channel will provide sufficient access to save the fish.
“Most of the fish biologists, including the Montana chapter of the American Fisheries Society, they’re almost unanimous in their skepticism about the solution that the court proposed, which is putting in the dam and putting in an artificial bypass,” said Steve Forrest, Defenders of Wildlife Rockies and Plains representative. “The natural side channel has been in place for 100 years or so, and telemetry has shown that some sturgeon try to use that thing every year. But apparently that has not been a sufficient number of sturgeon to make new baby sturgeon.”
While biologists worry about getting the adult sturgeon upstream, there is also a problem with getting the larval sturgeon downstream.
Recent research has shown that fertilized sturgeon eggs drop to the stream bottom where they swirl and bump along for about 10 days until the larval sturgeon develop enough of a tail to swim. This “larval drift” process requires a long stretch of unimpeded river.
If any larval sturgeon bump up against the Intake Dam before they’re developed, they tend to die, stuck in the warmer, silty, low-oxygen water behind the dam. This may partly explain why no young have been detected.
The U.S. Geological Service and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks have just started a study of the dynamics of larval drift, hoping to learn how the larval fish travel and whether some might be able to survive in shorter stream reaches if they get caught in side channels and eddies.
To give the sturgeon more of a fighting chance, conservation groups want the Bureau of Reclamation to give up on building a modern dam and install pumps instead to supply water from the river to the irrigation canals. Removing the dam would also be beneficial for other aquatic species.
It wouldn’t be the first project to use pumps for irrigation.
For example, in 2013, the Bureau of Reclamation decommissioned the Red Bluff Diversion Dam on the Sacramento River in California in favor of pumps to supply water to 150,000 acres of farmland. Opening up the Sacramento River has resulted in increasing numbers of salmon migrating up the river to spawn.
But pumps are more expensive, at least up front. The bypass is predicted to cost $60 million while installing pumps would cost twice as much. That’s one of the arguments that the eastern Montana irrigators use as part of their opposition of anything other than the dam. They also claim that pumps are unreliable if they clog and maintenance is expensive. However, the gravity-flow aspect of the dam has reliability issues and maintenance costs, also.
At the June 14 public meeting in Billings, Corps and BOR representatives limited each person to three minutes of comments, however they allowed people to get back in line to make more comments, said Montana Trout Unlimited director Bruce Farling. Farmers arrived in busloads and voiced their frustration with project delays, often blaming “environmentalists,” Farling said.
“We sat there and listened to three hours of abuse. (The irrigators) didn’t direct their comments to the agency people - they turned around to the crowd, pointed at us, and accused us of this and that. There were guys that got up there three or four times. And the agency people just let it happen,” Farling said. “The agencies were forced to redo their draft EIS and they biased it toward what they want.”
The agencies aren't allowing much time to complete their analysis. Unlike other environmental studies that can take up to several months after public comment to produce a final decision , this one could be finished in a few months, Forrest said.
“I think the Corps has a very ambitious timeline. I could be cynical and say they already have their response prepared,” Forrest said. “They do have funding to pay for it now. I think we’re going to see a decision sooner than it would warrant, given the kind of comments and analysis we’d like to see.”
The Corps has money from the Missouri River Recovery and Mitigation Program, which is supposed to go toward ecosystem restoration. But if the Corps spends $60 million on a bypass channel and it doesn’t help restore the pallid sturgeon, both the money and precious time will have been wasted, Forrest said. The project would have to be redone using pumps, costing more than if pumps were used in the first place. And the additional cost might be passed on to irrigators, although costs could be reduced as more water-saving devices were incorporated.
The Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the Corps, the BOR and the USFWS in February 2015 because they finally had scientific evidence that the Intake and Fort Peck dams threatened pallid sturgeon survival. The judge put an injunction on construction on the Intake Dame until a full environmental study that included an open-river alternative was complete.
In the meantime, the rest of the lawsuit has been on hold, Forrest said.
“If there’s not a satisfactory resolution at this point, we’ll crank the lawsuit open again,” Forrest said. “There’s no reason why there can’t be a scenario where the irrigators get all the water they want or need and the fish get the best chance that they can have as well. It’s not like logging where you can log or not. There really is potentially a win-win. It just may require a bit of compromise.”