Rising lake: welcome to some but not others

Posted July 17th, 2009 by kcorliss. Comment (0).

After several years of below average rainfall and, more accurately, low northern Rockies snowpack, Lake Sakakawea is on the rise this year. Good for fishing, good for residents, good for water users, good for downriver barge operations, bad for piping plovers and least terns.

(a crappy photo I took some years ago of a piping plover on a Missouri River sandbar)

The AP has this story out describing the situation.

The Army Corps of Engineers monitors nesting activity to help protect the rare birds.

A total of 75 piping plover nests were counted along Lake Sakakawea and the Missouri River earlier this year. But even with the moving of nests, the number has dropped to 7. Of the 20 least tern nests in the original count, 16 remain active.

These two species are a couple of the most sought-after by birders in this state and elsewhere. But I think what makes them endangered is likely their choice of nest sites–mostly bare sandy areas. Just the type of location which is a magnet to sun-seekers and beach-lovers everywhere. It’s that age old contact zone problem pitting humans vs. nature.

But a further element comes into play here and that is the issue of a man-made and thusly a man-managed water system–Lake Sakakawea–which sits as a large reservoir behind the Garrison dam. Of course our reservoir levels are dictated by two dams: the one above and the one below, inflow and outflow. In our case it’s the Ft. Peck dam in Montana which provides the majority of water to Lake Sakakawea.

I’m merely speculating here but in prehistorical times I would guess the birds faced the issue of rising water inundating their nest sites less often than today. Plus there was multitudes of more available nest sites which made the ocassional swamping absorbable by the population as a whole.

In contrast, today we have limited river sites (due to the dams up and down the Missouri River which stop the annual spring scouring of land) and managed water levels. And there are a few politically powerful forces acting upon this management, mostly the barge industry.

I found this article in the Williston (ND) Herald newspaper which further explains what I mean. Here are some relevant outtakes:

1-In the Fort Peck Lake area, there has been an ongoing dispute over water use among area leaders, residents and the local United States Army Corps of Engineers. On one side, some people believe more should be done to give the public more control over water usage for recreation and other purposes. Corps’ representatives say their hands are tied and they have to follow their official manuals that dictate how much water they can dispense from the reservoir. Officials at the corps say they do what they can with the resources available to them.

2-Pfau (Don Pfau, co-chair of the Ft. Peck Advisory Committee) said one of the main problems is the corps allocating water for use for barges going along the river downstream, which he said has priority but eventually draws down the lake levels on the Missouri River system. He said this year, Fort Peck is up more than it’s been in about a decade and it’s great right now, but allowing the barges to go through could reverse the gains made.

3-“We just got the water up, and then one of the things they did was they opened it up for a full barge season,” said Pfau.

There are never any easy solutions to this water grab which happens on any large river or lake. But when all is said and done, we are left with somewhat unnatural flows and unnatural pressures upon the piping plover and the least tern. As a result, the birds will likely never be very common with the current system in place.

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