May 26, 2010


By Neal A. Shipman
Farmer Editor

Most people that live in the upper reaches of the Missouri River (most notably those of us in North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana) have long questioned the Corps of Engineers management practices of Lake Sakakawea, Fort Peck and the Oahe reservoirs. We have seen the Corps turn a deaf ear to these state’s  interests as they have draw down these reservoirs to dangerously low levels during periods of drought. And we have seen the Corps consistently make management decisions that are in direct opposition to the wishes of the elected officials of these states.
All of which makes a person wonder if the Corps of Engineers doesn’t have other plans for the Missouri River water that is impounded in these three states. And if these plans don’t exclude the possibility of North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana from using a portion of the Missouri River water for economic development and growth.
You can’t blame people in North Dakota for being more than just a little skeptical of the Corps of Engineers intentions after that agency announced last week that it would be freezing the issuance of new water permits from Lake Sakakawea until it has completed a long-term water allocation study of the reservoir. That study, which could take three to seven years to complete, would have prohibited any new water intake permits from the lake and would have prevented any existing permits from being amended to allow for more water to be taken from the lake.
After considerable pressure from North Dakota’s Congressional delegation and our state’s elected leaders, the Corps of Engineers did reverse itself and agree to continue issuing water permits while they undertake their study.
But again the question that keeps coming up is, “Does the Corps have plans for Missouri River water that may exclude North Dakota’s rights to use it?”
From Montana to Missouri, communities have tapped into the Missouri River water for municipal water supplies and water is withdrawn for industrial usage and other economic development. But all of sudden, the Corps of Engineers became concerned that North Dakota wanted to use more water than it apparently wanted the state to have access to.
The Corps wanted to stop the state from using Missouri River water that is critical to the development of the state’s energy resources, as well as a key source of high quality drinking water to North Dakotans.
And it wasn’t as if North Dakota, in looking to tap into the Missouri River, was looking to run the river dry. In reality, North Dakota was proposing to use just a miniscule amount of the flows of the Missouri River water that runs through the state for energy and municipal drinking water use. According to state estimates, under full development of the state’s oil fields, about  60 acre-feet of Missouri River water would be required per day. While 60-acre feet may seem like a lot of water, it is important to remember that at a normal operating pool of 1,850 msl, Lake Sakakawea can store nearly 23 million acre-feet of water. And currently, approximately 40,000 acre-feet of Missouri River water flows through Bismarck-Mandan each day on its way downstream and ultimately, into the Gulf of Mexico.
Hopefully, the Corps’ initial decision was just a knee-jerk reaction by some Washington bureaucrat who didn’t understand that North Dakota has rights to use some of the Missouri River’s water, and not some underlying plan by the Corps that would deny the state any new usage of Missouri River water.