- Associated Press - Thursday, February 18, 2016

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - A proposal to remove a rock weir from Montana’s Yellowstone River so an endangered, primeval fish species can reach its spawning grounds could cost far more than government plans to construct a new dam and fish bypass at the site for $59 million.

Environmentalists who back the no-dam proposal say it would be worth the added expense to ensure the recovery of a small population of endangered pallid sturgeon on the lower Yellowstone. But a representative of farmers who rely on water diverted by the weir, which is a kind of dam, warned that removing it could leave them short.

Federal officials on Thursday said they would review the proposal to determine if it’s feasible, as part of a settlement in a lawsuit brought by Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The existing, low-profile rock weir diverts a portion of the river near the Montana-North Dakota border to irrigate more than 50,000 acres of cropland in the two states. For decades it’s prevented an aging population of about 125 wild sturgeon from swimming upriver to their historic spawning grounds

The species’ shark-like shape and long snout has changed little over the past 200 million years, earning it recognition among scientists as a “living fossil.”

The population in the Yellowstone declined sharply last century after dams were built along the Missouri River system. Federal officials declared it an endangered species in 1990 and have been seeking to replace the rock weir to open up 165 miles of upriver habitat for spawning sturgeon.

U.S. District Judge Brian Morris blocked construction of the dam just as it was set to begin last September. The plan by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Interior Department included a 2-mile channel for sturgeon get around the dam, but Morris said the agencies never proved it would work.

“Getting the dam out of the river is the best solution for the fish,” said Steve Forrest with Defenders of Wildlife, who helped draft the no-dam proposal.

Removing the rock weir and installing pumps to provide irrigation water to farmers along the Yellowstone could cost several times the original project’s price tag, said Forrest. If the cost is too high, he acknowledged that it could become impractical.

But Forrest and the other plaintiffs in the lawsuit said the cost could be greatly reduced, including with the adoption of water conservation measures for the irrigation system and the roughly 400 farms it serves. They also suggested the government buy a wind turbine to provide electricity at no cost to the irrigators.

That claim was disputed by a representative of farmers from the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation District. Shawn Higley with WWC Engineering told the Army Corps in a letter sent Wednesday that the irrigators need all the water they currently draw from the Yellowstone. He warned of “significant harm” if the amount of water were reduced.

A study considering different alternatives for the project is expected to be completed by November, said Army Corps’ project manager Christopher Fassero. The study will determine if the no-dam alternative can work and provide a better projection of potential costs.

“I can’t really say one way or another that we think it would work or not,” Fassero said.


Follow Matthew Brown on Twitter at https://twitter.com/matthewbrownap

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