Freestyle kayaking on the free-flowing Yellowstone River. Photo by Reid Morth

For more than a century the Yellowstone River has endured the tension between use, sometimes more like abuse, and preservation. That it remains America's longest free-flowing river is a remarkable feat, but it is not without compromise and threat. The river narrowly avoided the full-on dam fate of so many Western rivers during the 1900s, but it is punctuated by six river-spanning diversion structures that funnel several thousand cubic feet per second (cfs) of irrigation water onto farmer's fields. Dozens of oil pipelines cross the river, including two that ruptured in 2011 and 2015, spilling more than 110,000 gallons of crude oil into the river. The Yellowstone is subject to industrial withdrawals and use by cities and towns along its 550-mile length, not to mention the inevitable dumping of everything from treated sewage to old cars.

"I'm very careful to call the Yellowstone free-flowing, not undammed," says Scott Bosse, Regional Director of American Rivers.

Project areas along the Yellowstone River. Image credit to the Lower Yellowstone Project.

Yes, it still has the character of a free-flowing river – it floods pretty regularly, it supports vast cottonwood groves, its islands are full of driftwood and logjams, its channel whips back and forth across the floodplain, to the consternation of landowners and city managers. At the same time, the pressures to armor banks, provide irrigation, generate electricity, lubricate industry and still satisfy burgeoning fishing and recreation demands is a daunting and delicate balancing act.

The latest drama facing the Yellowstone is a $59 million diversion structure and fish passage project being proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers on the lower Yellowstone downstream of Glendive, Montana. The roots of the project extend back more than a century, to 1905, when a rock weir was built across the river to divert as much as 1,500 cfs into a 50-mile canal to water more than 52,000 acres of farmland in Montana and North Dakota. In a nod to Montanans' no-frills practicality, the structure is simply called Intake. Within a decade of its construction, Intake was blown out by ice jams, but it was quickly rebuilt and has remained in place ever since.

The dam builders had no way of knowing at the time that the diversion structure would drive the pallid sturgeon to the brink of extinction. Turns out that newly hatched young pallid sturgeon require an extended stretch of free-flowing water and a 'drift' lasting 10-14 days, to survive. Unfortunately, the Intake dam blocks pallids and paddlefish, among other species, from hundreds of miles of their traditional habitat upstream, while the downstream current is stilled by Garrison Dam and Lake Sakakawea on the Missouri River. The young pallids drift into that slack water and die.

The pallid sturgeon (Scaphirhynchus albus) is an endangered species of ray-finned fish, endemic to the waters of the Missouri and lower Mississippi river basins of the United States.  Named for its pale coloration, it is closely related to the relatively common shovelnose sturgeon (Scaphirhyncus platorhynchus), but is much larger, averaging between 30 and 60 inches (76 and 152 cm) in length and 85 pounds (39 kg) in weight at maturity. This species takes 15 years to mature and spawns infrequently, but can live up to a century. Photo and description from Wikipedia.

"It's not that the pallids aren't strong swimmers," says Matt Jaeger, a fisheries biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. "They just aren't leapers. They can't manage the turbulence and the sill at the top."

In 1991 the population of pallid sturgeon had dwindled to the point that they were put on the Endangered Species list, and ever since, government agencies have been tasked with mitigating the damage to that species while still providing for the needs of farmers.

Which brings us to the current project, the latest in a string of proposals going back a decade or more. The Army Corps previously proposed an ambitious diversion structure coupled with a half-mile-long fish ramp, but that proposal was blocked in the courts in 2011 after opponents challenged it's legality under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). The latest proposal from the Army Corps involves replacing the rock weir with a more permanent concrete barrier, screening the mouth of the diversion canal to keep fish from dying by the thousands in irrigation ditches, and building a bypass channel to allow fish, presumably including pallid sturgeon, to swim upstream past the dam to repopulate their ancient habitat.

Sounds like a win-win, right? The farmers sure like it. The project would provide much-needed jobs for a time. Local support for the proposal is almost universal.

Proposed Bypass Channel. Access the complete PDF here.

But not so fast. Critics, including environmental groups, fisheries biologists and scientists, say there is no evidence to suggest that this strategy will actually work. There are, in fact, no existing similar structures anywhere which have succeeded in allowing passage for sturgeon. That includes a far-sighted fish passage project on the Tongue River (a major tributary to the Yellowstone), which has been successful in passing many warm-water fish species upstream, but has had no success with sturgeon. No one knows why, but sturgeon won't use these passage channels.

The worry is that this expensive project will go forward, the irrigation status quo will be maintained, and the pallid sturgeon will still be in danger of extinction. That's bad for the fish of course, and would likely cause federal agencies—which are required by law to protect endangered species—to spend millions on hatchery programs which are at best a Band Aid solution.

Scientists have an alternative. Their preferred option is to remove the old dam, restore the natural and unobstructed river flow, and install a pumping station on the riverbank to pull off the required irrigation flow. They point to the Savage Rapids dam removal/pumping project on the Rogue River in Oregon as an example of this strategies' success. Win-win, right? In the long view, an open river channel will restore hundreds of miles of upstream river habitat for pallid sturgeon, paddlefish and other warm-water species. It will also enhance recreation for paddlers and anglers who currently have to portage the dam or avoid that stretch of river.

The Army Corps doesn't like that option. Their engineers are enamored with the structure they've designed, and suggest that the pumping alternative will be more expensive. Local residents like the status quo just fine. A pumping station would bring additional costs for electricity and, frankly, Montana farmers and ranchers bristle at the idea of their economic survival being threatened by a handful of ugly fish.

Camping on gravel bar, canoeing the lower Yellowstone River, upstream of the Missouri River confluence and into the slack water of Lake Sakakawea. Photo: Schmidt.

Given the history of federal dam-building agencies, projects tend to be dominated by engineers who have a handle on structural issues and managing water flows. Environmental consequences tend to take a back seat to economic considerations like power generation or irrigation. It's only later, as the many examples throughout the west have come to demonstrate (from Glen Canyon Dam to the Oroville spillway) that we realize the unintended impacts of our engineering. From beach erosion on the Colorado to snail darter population collapse, the tendency is to build first and deal with the 'little stuff' later, if at all.

"Here's the problem," suggests Bosse. "The Corps has a history of low-balling their preferred alternative, while inflating the costs of other options. More to the point, they engineer with an eye toward hydrologic success, or making water do what they want it to, not for environmental success."

The dam proposal has been opposed by American Rivers and challenged in the courts by two other environmental nonprofits (Natural Resources Defense Council and Defenders of Wildlife), on the basis of flawed science as it applies to the Endangered Species Act. At this stage the courts are allowing the project to proceed, but federal budgets have been slashed. The Army Corps has vowed to go forward, even if they can only partially complete the project with the allocated funds.

Meantime, paddlers, anglers, and concerned citizens, not to mention hapless victims like the pallid sturgeon, are left with the eternal conflict between managing nature while acting as responsible stewards. More often than not, if history is our guide, nature takes the hit. Right now, the free-flowing Yellowstone River, and the species that depend on its resources, hang in the balance.

The author navigating between the free-flowing and industrial on the Yellowstone. Photo by Reid Morth.

Editor-at-Large Alan Kesselheim has contributed to C&K for decades, producing everything from Field Tested reviews and poignant essays, to op-eds (Paddling in the Shadow of Trump’s Wall) and service pieces (How to Paddle Whitewater With Kids).

Check out Two-hearted River, Kesselheim’s feature on the Yellowstone River from the March 2012 edition of C&K.

Related: Threats to the Yellowstone and Upper Missouri Rivers, and Fuel’s Gold: Paddling the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers through the Bakken oil fields.