Barge use decline spurs questions on best use of Missouri River

Long-haul commercial barges on the Missouri River can be as hard to spot as the endangered pallid sturgeon.

In 2002, the amount hauled dipped below 1 million tons and has failed to reach that level again. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated that barges hauled about 300,000 tons in 2007 and 350,000 tons in 2008. That compares to the Chain of Rocks Lock on the Mississippi River near St. Louis, where barges hauled 68 million tons in 2007.

The corps blamed the lack of barge traffic on a long drought that had depleted reservoirs in Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota.

A North Dakota senator has questioned why the corps continued to maintain the lower river from Omaha to St. Louis for barge traffic when there was so little. Sen. Byron Dorgan, a Democrat and chairman of the energy and water resources committee, has included $25 million in an appropriations bill for a five-year study to re-evaluate the uses of the river, said Paul Johnston, a corps spokesman.

The river for years has been the center of a clash among competing needs for drinking, irrigation, recreation, wildlife and barge travel.

To provide barge traffic in the summer, the corps releases water from upstream dams. But in 2000, a biological opinion found that the high volumes drowned out the nesting places for the least tern and the piping plover and reduced survival rates for the juvenile pallid sturgeon. That set off another round of lawsuits.

American Rivers spokeswoman Amy Kober said the government should take a look at river use, especially in light of the lack of barge traffic.

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