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Associated Press, Published October 31 2012

Drought of 2012 expected to play role in Missouri River management plan

BISMARCK — The flood of 2011 and the drought of 2012 will both likely influence how the Army Corps of Engineers manages the Missouri River in the upcoming year.

The corps is holding six meetings in five states over four days on its annual operating plan for the river next year. Meetings were held Tuesday in the North Dakota capital of Bismarck and the South Dakota capital of Pierre. Residents and officials urged the corps to conserve water in upstream reservoirs as drought conditions persist, just a year after record summer flooding.

Upstream and downstream interests have long battled for priority when it comes to the river, with upper states seeking more water for recreation and irrigation and lower states lobbying for support of the barge industry there. Water for any of the uses could be in even shorter supply next year.

September runoff in the Missouri River system was at its lowest level in more than a century of record keeping, said Jody Farhat, the corps' Missouri River Basin water management chief. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasts that the dry conditions will continue into next spring in some areas.

"By the time we hit the spring, our forecast is telling us that we expect to see our largest three reservoirs — Fort Peck, Garrison and Oahe — come in about 10 feet below what we normally see, and so we could see some reduced levels of services," corps spokeswoman Monique Farmer said.

Fort Peck is in Montana, Garrison in North Dakota and Oahe in both Dakotas. There will be minimal releases from those reservoirs over the winter. The corps will conduct checks next March and July to determine what level of water to release to downstream areas.

Record flooding in the summer of 2011 flushed a large number of rainbow smelt through the Oahe Dam, drastically reducing the amount that game fish such as walleye had to eat and harming the fishery. If basin runoff remains low in the spring, the corps plans to give the lake preference over Lake Sakakawea behind Garrison Dam when it comes to holding back water to aid fish spawning, Farhat said.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.