ONAWA, Iowa -- Matt Sorenson's not a biologist, but the hours he's spent fishing on the Missouri River have given him a good understanding about the importance of knowing what's going on beneath the water's surface.
So when Sorenson found out the Iowa Department of Natural Resources plans to close its only fish monitoring station on the river, he was concerned what the loss of a having a constant presence studying river fish populations and habitat could mean for anglers.
"I was upset because we weren't going to have any representation for this part of the state on the Missouri River," said Sorenson, who lives along the river near Onawa. "It's not just this one little area, it's the whole Iowa-Nebraska border."
Sorenson plans to attend a 6 p.m. Tuesday public hearing at the Lewis and Clark State Park Visitor Center near Onawa in which the DNR will discuss its plans for the Missouri River Monitoring Station. He and others will stress to the DNR the importance of having state scientists out on the river gathering data.
"We need eyes and ears in the field from the Missouri River," said David Weidt, a former Monona County Conservation ranger who has questioned the DNR's decision while spreading the word about the upcoming meeting.
He and Sorenson were surprised to learn in July that the DNR is reassigning the two permanent monitoring station positions to other locations in eastern Iowa by Oct. 5.
Weidt said the station's workers were instrumental in the establishment of a paddlefish season on the river in 2013. With the invasive Asian carp population growing in the river, it's important to have scientists studying what effect they may have on other fish.
"I think this is a horrible time for us to be pulling resources away from monitoring them," Weidt said.
Transferring the two workers and effectively closing the station makes better use of the DNR's limited resources, said Chris Larson, the DNR's western Iowa regional fisheries supervisor at the Southwest Regional Office in Lewis.
Established in 2005 with major funding from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the station had been supported in large part for years by federal dollars paid through contracts with the corps to study and monitor pallid sturgeon habitat and survival for the endangered species in shallow water areas the corps had developed on the river in Iowa. But since the corps has reduced the number of habitat rehabilitation projects in Iowa, corps reimbursements have dropped to only 20 percent-30 percent of the monitoring station's approximately $200,000 budget, Larson said.
"Revenues have not met obligations," Larson said. "There are priority needs elsewhere in the state."
Larson said the Legislature's approval of hunting and fishing license fee increases this past session will not boost revenue enough for the DNR to fill all of the 12 currently vacant Fisheries Bureau's positions -- most of them in the eastern half of the state. The DNR decided to move the two Missouri River workers to other high-priority locations.
"We've been doing more with less for years, and we have more pressing needs in other parts of the state," Larson said. "We can't do everything. I wish we could."
The Missouri River Monitoring Station's biologist will be reassigned to the Mississippi River Fisheries Research Team in Bellevue. The natural resource technician is being transferred to the Manchester Trout Hatchery in Manchester.
The monitoring station's shop and storage facilities, located within Lewis and Clark State Park, will be occupied by the DNR's wildlife unit, Larson said. He said future fish monitoring on the river could be done by DNR workers from the Blackhawk Station in Lake View or the Cold Springs District Fisheries office in Lewis. Nebraska environmental workers will continue to perform monitoring work, and Larson said data they collect would be shared with the DNR.
A Corps of Engineers spokesman said work done by the DNR's Missouri River station has been beneficial to corps habitat restoration projects, but that work has not been limited to studying pallid sturgeon populations.
"Some efforts did focus on sampling pallid sturgeon or the closely related shovelnose sturgeon," David Kolarik said. "It is not uncommon, however, to sample other Missouri River species as part of this work. Data collected from these past efforts have been synthesized in annual reports and are used to aid in the design of habitat restoration projects and often utilized to refine monitoring techniques and study designs."
Weidt said he hoped that the DNR would reconsider its decision and, at the least, keep the technician in Onawa to collect data for biologists elsewhere in the state to review.
He wishes that the DNR had conducted its public meeting earlier in the decision-making process, a concern shared by state lawmakers who represent the area.
"My concern is we didn't have this meeting up front. I hope the decision is not set in concrete. I hope the public meeting is more than just window dressing," said Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig.
Like Schultz, Rep. Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri River, said he's all for prudent use of taxpayer dollars, but he also wants to see state resources distributed equitably.
"I think that western Iowa continues to get the short end of the stick on funding in several areas," he said.
Windschitl gave a blunt assessment on the DNR's public notification of its decision.
"It's frustrating that no input was sought from constituents and the Legislature," he said. "The public should always be consulted on these types of issues."
Larson said the DNR had to make an early decision to give the reassigned workers time to relocate ahead of Oct 5. Tuesday's meeting will give local residents a chance to share their thoughts, he said.
"We decided to give stakeholders a chance to voice their opinions, and we'll take them into consideration," he said. "People are passionate about resources in their own backyard. I understand that passion. The Missouri River is an important resource to the state of Iowa."