For the anglers in western Montana that look forward each summer to going east and fishing Fort Peck Reservoir, I have a New Year’s resolution for you. Well, it might not qualify as a resolution, but put it on your to-do list for 2003 nonetheless.
The 134-mile-long lake that is made up of the backed-up waters of the Missouri River behind Fort Peck Dam is in serious trouble in my opinion and it doesn’t look good in the short or long term unless a few things happen. One of those things is definitely out of our control – Mother Nature. If Mother Nature decided to give the mountains of Montana above-average snow pack and end the 4-year drought that has gripped the state, things would be a lot better on Fort Peck.
The magic word is water. Lots of it, flowing down the Missouri River. But that hasn’t happened and isn’t likely to happen in the predicted warm and dry El Nino winter. The lack of it has left some boat ramps out of the water already on Fort Peck.
Get ready for more. Compounding the low-water problem is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has decided to increase the outflow from Fort Peck Dam to 10,000 cubic feet per second during the month of December, 11,000 in January and 10,600 in February. Those figures are two to almost three times the normal inflow into the lake. With only 3,000 to 5,000 cfs of inflow during the past month, the lake level has already dropped more than two feet since Dec. 1. It may reach the all-time low of 2,208 by February unless the weather changes.
The drought in Montana not only effects us but the rest of the Missouri River downstream through North Dakota and South Dakota. The Corps is in charge of regulating water flows on all dams on the Missouri River reservoir system. On the reservoirs of Montana and the Dakotas, fishing and other forms of outdoor recreation are the primary uses. On the lower river of Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri the water is used for transporting barges up and down its passageways. Therein lies the problem. The Corps is committed through an ancient master manual to keep the barges floating for navigation on the lower river. In doing that, anglers in Montana and the Dakotas are left high and dry.
Unless Mother Nature starts to fill the Missouri River, it’s going to take some heroic efforts to keep boat ramps in use on Fort Peck. In Montana, the Corps has announced that it will keep the major boat ramps open even if it takes a lot of work and a lot of money to extend the ramps.
In the meantime, it’s not just the boaters being affected but the fish of Fort Peck as well. Perch haven’t spawned in a number of years. Neither have northern pike. Lake trout have lost more than half of their spawning areas to dropping water levels. And while there are still good numbers of walleyes in the lake, they’re heading deep because shoreline bait fish have taken a hit.
The local communities in eastern Montana that have built up a good tourist trade over the years will be hurt along with the fisherman. And it doesn’t look good for this winter to be a drought buster.
So what can you do? The answer is pick up the phone or get on your computer and contact our members of Congress in Washington – Sens. Max Baucus and Conrad Burns and Rep. Dennis Rehberg. All three are familiar with the importance of keeping the water level on Fort Peck Reservoir at least to a level that will keep most of the boat ramps accessible for anglers up and down the lake. They fought and got federal dollars to start building the Fork Peck fish hatchery, a project that is earmarked for completion by 2006 if they keep fighting and getting the appropriations to finish the job.
Now we need them to put their fingers in the dike and influence the Corps of Engineers in Omaha to slow the outflow to a more manageable level until Mother Nature decides to start cooperating again. Your phone call or e-mail will help and now is the time to get it done when the U.S. Congress goes back into session Jan. 6. Make the contact and make it a Happy New Year in 2003.
Here are the phone numbers to contact our Congressional delegation:
Sen. Conrad Burns 1-800-344-1513
Sen. Max Baucus 1-800-332-6106
Rep. Denny Rehberg 1-888-232-2626