Missouri River, au Naturel

With the sweep of her signature, a federal judge on Saturday put a bit of nature back into the flow of the Missouri River, which has the nation's most extensive system of dams. US District Judge Gladys Kessler ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to adjust water levels to help save a species of fish (pallid sturgeon) and two endangered species of birds (least tern and Great Plains piping plover).

Her decision overrides the human demands on the 2,341-mile river - from electric utilities to farm irrigation to some barge traffic - in a victory for the US Endangered Species Act.

Years of negotiations to balance the conflicting uses of the Missouri's water have now failed, forcing the judge to act. This is yet another example of how environmental conflicts too often end up in the courts because of bureaucratic standoffs and political stalemates.

With so many states using the nation's second-longest river, Congress should have been able to fashion a compromise. Perhaps there's still time or opportunity to do that.

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