A New Year Brings a New Chance for Fish and Farmers to Thrive in the Yellowstone River Basin

Earlier this week, a group of federal agencies, irrigation districts, and conservation groups agreed to a settlement that provides a real opportunity to improve operations on the Yellowstone River for fish, anglers, farmers, and federal agencies that have struggled for years to protect the ancient and endangered pallid sturgeon.

As the former chief of fisheries for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks explained in a recent New York Times op-ed, the endangered pallid sturgeon has survived the extinction of the dinosaurs and the last ice age, but will not survive the Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation's dam-building on the Yellowstone and upper Missouri River system unless these agencies change their ways. Our settlement gives the agencies a chance to do just that. It follows a lawsuit filed by NRDC and the Defenders of Wildlife that challenges a flawed effort by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build a concrete dam across the Yellowstone River that would create a barrier to sturgeon and other fish from accessing over 150 miles of spawning and rearing habitat upstream of the dam. The settlement puts the lawsuit on hold, and provides a path for the parties and the public to find a better alternative.

NRDC enthusiastically supports the settlement, which is also supported by the federal agencies that are proposing the dam and the irrigation districts that would divert water from the Yellowstone River behind the dam. We know there are better win-win solutions to meet the needs of the irrigators while also ensuring that the endangered pallid sturgeon and other fish can thrive in the iconic Yellowstone River because we've done it before.

For many years, a similar concrete dam, known as the Red Bluff Diversion Dam, blocked access for salmon, sturgeon, and other fish to upstream spawning and rearing habitat on the Sacramento River in California. Despite the presence of a fish ladder, the Red Bluff Diversion Dam was long recognized as a serious impediment to the successful migration of fish on the Sacramento River and an obstacle to the health and recovery of threatened and endangered fish populations. In the late 2000s, NRDC worked with the local irrigation districts, the federal agencies, and Congress to secure funding to replace the Dam with a screened pump that removed the impediment to fish passage and allowed the irrigators to continue to divert essential water supplies. The Dam's gates were permanently raised in 2012, allowing fish populations to improve while supporting the regional farming economy.

Red Bluff Diversion Dam wreaked havoc on Sacramento River fisheries for over 45 years before stakeholders and the agencies found the will and the funds to replace the Dam with a better alternative. The settlement entered this week gives us a chance on the Yellowstone River to get it right -- before a concrete dam is built and more damage is done.

That's good news for local residents, businesses and the pallid sturgeon for the new year.

About the Authors

Kate Poole

Senior Attorney, Water and Wildlife Project Director, Water program

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