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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – A lengthy review of how the Missouri River system is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will be done with a backdrop of politics, special interests – and low confidence in the corps.

The $25 million, five-year study was authorized by Congress to determine whether changes need to be made in the 1944 law that sets purposes for the dams, reservoirs and lower free-flowing river: flood control, navigation, hydropower, irrigation, water supply, recreation, water quality, and fish and wildlife.

The massive study begins as a recent report by a Colorado consulting group says eight of 10 people it questioned through interviews and focus groups said changes are needed in how the corps manages the basin system, which stretches some 2,300 miles from southwestern Montana to St. Louis.

More than a third of those interviewed said “major” changes were needed in how the corps manages the river.

“Realistically, there’s not enough water to do everything for everybody, and there’s always that dilemma,” said David Pope, executive director of the Missouri River Association of States and Tribes, which requested the study two years ago.

“I think what’s pretty apparent to a lot of people is that there’s been tremendous change – socially, economically, environmentally – (in) the way in which water is used. All of those things have changed a lot since 1944,” Pope said.

Management of the river system has often been a contentious issue between upper basin and lower basin states and has resulted in lawsuits. Upper basin states generally want rising or stable water levels for fish reproduction and summer recreation. Lower basin states desire flood control and a steady flow for barges.

Next up for the corps is gathering comment at 41 meetings in the basin states of Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas and in Denver, New Orleans, Memphis, Tenn., and Rock Island, Ill. Meetings will be held June 15 in Fort Peck, Aug. 17 in Helena and Aug. 18 in Billings.

“This is the point where we’re really going to home in specifically on what we are going to study and how much we’re going to study,” Monique Farmer, spokeswoman for the corps’ district office in Omaha, Neb., said of the summer meetings. “We like to say the size and the shape of what the study is going to be.”

The Osprey Group is the Colorado consultant hired by the federal government to assess how the corps can develop a project management plan that includes the diverse interests in the basin.

Difficulties it cited include a highly politicized environment, the possibility that various interests could derail the process at any time, and low public confidence in the Corps of Engineers.

“The corps is characterized with words such as secretive, inflexible and unresponsive,” the Osprey Group report said. “This reputation results in a good deal of public skepticism.”

Ideally, the study will provide information, objective analysis and common ground that can benefit the entire basin without someone losing and someone winning, said Pope, whose MoRAST group is comprised of state and tribal representatives from Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas.

“But there’s a lot of things that have not been dealt with in the basin that this could be the impetus for, such as water supply needs in rural areas and on Indian reservations,” he said.

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