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Government, Politics & Issues

Pallid sturgeon the object of ire for Nixon, Koster

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 18, 2009 - With the GOP-controlled Legislature now out of session, two of the state's top Democrats -- Gov. Jay Nixon and Attorney General Chris Koster -- have their sights on a new target:

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' efforts to protect the pallid sturgeon.

Earlier today, Nixon and Koster each fired off statements that urged the Corps, in Nixon's words, "to discontinue a spring rise operation on the Missouri River that began this morning from the Gavins Point Dam, which lies on the border between Nebraska and South Dakota."

The officials' concern stems from this spring's flooding that has plagued homes, farms and some riverfront communities.

“Right now, we simply can’t afford this risk of this man-made flood here in the Show-Me State," Nixon said in a statement. "The Corps made the right decision to call off its spring rise back in March, and I urge them to cease this operation immediately as well.”

He said that the Mississippi River at Cape Girardeau "was expected to crest at almost 10 feet above flood stage" next weekend.

The Corps' "spring rise operation" was begun more than a decade ago on the Missouri River as part of federal effort to help the spawning practices of the pallid sturgeon, a slow-growing, long-living fish that is part of a fish family popular for its caviar (salted eggs).

The pallid sturgeon, which resides generally in the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, was put on the endangered species list in the earlier 1990s.

Nixon says he questions "the continued need for an artificial spring rise in light of scientific studies, funded by the Corps, that suggest that pallid sturgeon are spawning sufficiently without this man-made event."

Koster offered similar objections. "The rise in water levels is intended to trigger the spawning of the pallid sturgeon, but scientists don’t know if the rise has any affect on the reproduction of the sturgeon," the attorney general said in a statement.

“We’re risking the lives and livelihoods of Missourians for what may turn out to be a phantom,” Koster continued. “The Corps has no idea whether the rise helps the sturgeon in any way, but the Corp does know the risk the rise creates here in Missouri."

Corps spokesman Paul Johnston said that "spring rise" is not the correct term. It's actually a two-day "pulse'' that will end mid-day Wednesday, he said.  Such "pulses" have been used several times in the last five years to help the pallid sturgeon.

Based on various technical measures, the Corps does not believe that its action causes any flood threats. And it has no plans to halt the current pulse, Johnson said.

Missouri complaints about the Corps' release of water from upriver dams along the Missouri River go back decades, and reflect -- in part -- a longstanding dispute between upriver and downriver states. In the fall, for example, upriver states often beef that too much water is being released from their reservoirs to order to keep the Missouri River navigable for commercial traffic.

The pallid sturgeon has, at times, factored into the fall dispute as well. In the early '90s, the Corps contemplated reducing the Missouri River's flow during August and September, to recreate river conditions before the dams were built.

The aim was again to help the sturgeon's spawning practices. The downstream states, including Missouri, have complained that commercial river traffic would suffer.

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