Missouri River looms as major problem
Tribes and states want Corps to change plans
BISMARCK, N.D. - Drought conditions in the Northern Plains and some Rocky
Mountain regions pose serious problems for recreation and navigation from
the upper to the lower Missouri River Basin.
Six years of drought conditions brought reservoirs to near their lowest
levels in decades causing agricultural irrigation and personal water use
The states of North and South Dakota have jumped into the fray with the
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to change the management of the water flow in
order to protect the reservoir levels.
Charles Murphy, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe located in both
North and South Dakota, suggested that lawsuits might be in order to
prevent anyone from being denied water.
Just before Thanksgiving 2003 members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe were
victims of a clogged intake pipe on Lake Oahe, the largest of the six
Missouri River reservoirs.
The cause of the blockage was silt that filled the intake pipe following
years of water level reduction in the lake.
It is not just a problem for the tribes, North Dakota legislators pointed
The complaint is that the Corps releases too much water to accommodate
downstream states and the navigation industry. That release, according to
tribal and state water resource experts, accounts for water shortages for
communities and tribes.
Tribes have complained to the Corps for decades about the management of the
river flows citing the treaty as an authority that requires
government-to-government consultation over management that affects water
use and cultural sites.
The past six years have brought about one of the worst droughts affecting
the river. Scientists, state and the tribes collectively ask the Corps to
consider their wishes when lowering water levels to make lower-state river
levels more navigable.
The three largest reservoirs, Fort Peck in Montana next to the Fort Peck
Reservation; Sakakewea, next to the Fort Berthold Reservation and Oahe,
next to the Standing Rock Sioux and the Cheyenne River Reservations are
three of the six reservoirs that make up the largest system of lakes in
North America. All reservoirs border reservations that have suffered from
flooding of natural resources, villages and some of the best land for
agriculture in the states of North and South Dakota.
At present Oahe lake is at a record low having been reduced to 32 feet
below normal. It is expected that this year it will drop by another nine
For the tribes and state residents the bottom line is economics and water
It was estimated by the South Dakota Game Fish and Parks that the economic
loss to the state and tribes has been $17 million. Tribal members operate
fishing resorts along the reservoirs whose boat docks are no longer usable
because they reside on dry land. Only 14 docks are open and it is expected
that if the water is lowered further only seven of those will be accessible
The real problem is that the river is running out of water. Navigation
could be curtailed and water intake by communities and reservations is in
peril; but there is a solution, according to Gov. Mike Rounds of South
Officials want the Corps of Engineers to veer from the Master Manual for
operations and move into a critical water conservation mode that will
possibly save navigation and aid wildlife and fish habitats that are
critical to recreational economics and agricultural impact to the upper
river states and tribes.
The states of North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska, along with tribes
that hold the water rights by treaty and trust responsibility, have gone on
record as supporting extensive conservation measures.
If the drought continues as expected elected officials want the Corps to
stop all navigation in the lower states in April. That would eliminate the
need to open spillways to lower the reservoirs so barges could navigate and
conserve much-needed water for spawning fish and to prevent intake pipes
Standing Rock has not yet repaired the damaged intake - it is waiting on
$30 million from Congress for the repair work.