January 12, 2011


By Neal A. Shipman
Farmer Editor

If there is one thing that anyone who deals with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sooner or later comes to realize it is that there is no status quo with the Corps. Just when the public thinks that they finally have figured out the Corps’ policies governing Lake Sakakawea, they up and change them.
We’ve seen the Corps change its access policies that once gave the public pretty much wide access to most of the shoreline along the lake to a very limited access policy. We’ve seen them write new policies and regulations that give birds more rights to the shorelines than the public. And we’ve seen them draw down the lake and send the Missouri River waters flowing to the Gulf of Mexico when the State of North Dakota desperately needed the water.
And whenever the public questioned the Corps on the latest of its policy or management changes that almost always negatively impacted the people of North Dakota, the Corps could always find the appropriate language in some 60-year-old document that gave them the supposed right to do.
And now the Corps of Engineers is pulling out that time trusted document to once again put their spin on a new policy. A policy that, if enacted by the Corps, would charge waters users in North Dakota a fee based on the amount of water taken from the Missouri River reservoir.
Absurd, you say. How can the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers charge North Dakotans for the use of their own water? Quite easily it seems if you care to read the 240+ page document entitled, the draft Lake Sakakawea Surplus Water Report and Environmental Assessment. According to Corps officials, the Flood Control Act of 1944 has provisions that allow the Corps to quantify surplus water in the dam and charge a fee. And that fee, according to the Corps, is based on what it would cost to replace the dam.
And now, rightfully so, North Dakotans, including Governor Jack Dalrymple and U.S. Senator John Hoeven are taking very strong exception to the Corps proposal that could result in charges of $21.91 per acre-foot of water for those drawing water from Lake Sakakawea with a maximum use of 100,000 acre-feet of water.
Fair enough. If the Corps wants to start charging municipal and industrial water users a fee for using Lake Sakakawea water, maybe the State of North Dakota should come up with a fee to adequately compensate the owners of the 550,000 acres of prime river bottoms that were gobbled up by the Corps. And since the Corps of Engineers doesn’t seem fit to want to charge anyone downstream a fee for using these surplus waters in Lake Sakakawea for irrigation, hydropower, navigation, water supplies or flood control, obviously the State of North Dakota has a right to charge these users for using the water.
Many North Dakotans are skeptical of the majority of the Corps recent management decisions, which based on the antiquated Master Manual, have always put the water rights of the downstream states ahead of the rights of North Dakota. And most often the decisions being rendered by the Corps more often than not seem to be made to appease political powers to be in southern states or wherever the Corps needs to cultivate political allies. Or they seem to be drafted at the request of a Presidential administration that is trying to further its agenda.
Once again, the Corps of Engineers seems to be drafting new rules and regulations that will future impede North Dakota’s ability to tap into the waters of Lake Sakakawea for its own development. In the past, the Corps has turned a deaf ear to North Dakota’s argument that the economic impact of the state’s recreation industry far outweighed the economic impact of the barge industry on the lower stretches of the Missouri River when it came to maintaining higher levels of water in the mainstem reservoirs during times of drought. And this time, the Corps attempt at charging a fee for water taken from Lake Sakakawea is directly aimed at limiting irrigation, municipal water and industrial usage by the people of North Dakota.
North Dakota has ownership of the free-flowing waters within its borders. And that includes the waters of the Missouri River. For the Corps to expect North Dakotans to now pay to use its own water borders on ridiculous.