Water wars pit thirsty Dakotas against barges for Missouri flow

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 December, 2012, 2:21pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 December, 2012, 2:21pm


The Missouri River has blessed and cursed Kevin Schmidt, alternately nourishing or overrunning his farmland. This year its water saved his cows, and it may do so again next year if a lack of rain dries out his soil.

The river sustains farmers and ranchers in its upper basin, 1,000 miles from where shippers are pushing to have more of its water released into the drought-depleted Mississippi River to avert a suspension of barge traffic on the nation’s busiest waterway later this month.

“I need irrigated acres for a guaranteed feed source for my cattle,” said Schmidt, 55, whose property south of Bismarck, North Dakota, was first homesteaded by his great-grandfather in the late 1800s. Talk of drawing down the Missouri’s water makes him nervous, he said.

Under pressure from US senators along the Mississippi, the US Army Corps of Engineers last week said it would reconsider its seasonal reduction in water flow through dams it operates to protect the supply that Schmidt and others depend on. Missouri River-area lawmakers fired back with a letter to President Barack Obama, arguing the Army Corps has no authority to increase the river’s flow to help the Mississippi.

Time is running short. The Army Corps said it would report back to the lawmakers this week as the usual Midwest dry season, combined with the region’s worst drought since 1956, is projected to push Mississippi levels so low it could halt shipping altogether in a section near the river’s midpoint south of St. Louis.

At risk are 20,000 jobs and US$130 million in wages and benefits if the river is closed for two months, the American Waterways Operators, a lobbying group based in Arlington, Virginia, estimates.

If the Army Corps does decide to release more water, shippers say it would take two weeks for it to reach the parched portions of the Mississippi, which it joins near St. Louis.

The fight over whether the Missouri should be used to shore up a dry Mississippi looks very different upstream. The barge traffic that dominates debates downriver doesn’t exist. Hydropower, recreation -- and, in recent years, supplying a boom in hydraulic fracturing for oil and natural gas that’s given North Dakota the lowest US unemployment rate -- all require the Missouri’s water.

“Disputes over the river become very intense, and you can never please everyone,” said Bernard Shanks, a fellow at the Mill Valley, California-based Resource Renewal Institute and former director of Washington state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. “It’s a classic East-West dispute for which there are simply no easy solutions.”

Shippers already have begun to reduce the loads on barges to keep them from scraping the bottom, something that drives up the cost of moving the US$7 billion worth of grain, coal and other goods that the Waterway Operators say typically ship on the Mississippi in December and January. The Army Corps says navigation will be impaired by December 11 and a record low-water mark will be set on December 22, barring any unexpected rain or other event.

The Waterways Operators and the Waterways Council, another trade group also based in Arlington, Virginia, say traffic will be impeded December 10 from St. Louis south about 180 miles (290 kilometres) to Cairo, where it meets the Ohio River.

The groups successfully lobbied to have the Army Corps hasten a project to remove massive limestone rock formations, known as pinnacles, that stud the riverbed near the Illinois towns of Thebes and Grand Tower and obstruct vessels at low water. The US will begin demolition the rocks by January 3, speeding up the project by about a month, the Army Corps of Engineers said earlier this week.

Increasing the flow of Missouri River water is a more contentious issue, and one that has engendered strong opposition.

In their letter to Obama last week, the entire North Dakota congressional delegation, along with its governor and officials from South Dakota, Montana and Kansas, said increasing the outflow of the Missouri’s water “will undoubtedly have a negative impact on the people and many businesses in the states we represent, which are also suffering overwhelmingly from the effects of drought.”

Because of the drought, the Mississippi has received as much as 78 per cent of its water from the Missouri this year, compared with 60 per cent in a normal year, according to Missouri Governor Jay Nixon. Even more may be needed to stave off economic catastrophe, the shippers argue.

The Army Corps has the authority to provide additional water flow for downstream interests and has done so several times in the past, Nixon said in a statement released by his office last month. Upstream lawmakers disagree. In their letter to Obama, they said even the presidential emergency declaration their counterparts along the Mississippi are seeking is only permitted to save lives or property -- not for economic assistance.

The waterway has other uses that affect economies from its mouth near St. Louis to its headwaters in western Montana’s Rocky Mountains, said Jody Farhat, chief of Missouri River Basin water management in the Omaha District for the Army Corps.

The restriction of water flow from the Gavins Point Dam near Yankton, South Dakota, that began last month is governed by a congressionally mandated water manual for the Missouri that spells out eight uses for that river that the Army Corps must take into account: hydropower, water supply, water quality control, fish and wildlife, recreation, irrigation, navigation and flood control.

The so-called Master Manual, first published in the 1960s and revised in 2004 to create more stringent drought-management rules, guide yearly operating plans for the Missouri River that balance those uses, Farhat said. Dams along the river act in tandem under the plan, with levels adjusted in one location affecting other reservoirs up and downstream, she said.

To meet irrigation needs, for example, the Army Corps is required to set aside a reserve that can handle 12 years of dryness, a period in length comparable to the Dust Bowl, Farhat said. This year, about one-fifth of the supply already has been used, “and this is the first year. Droughts don’t normally last only one year in this part of the country,” she said.

For the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, whose lands cross the border of North Dakota and South Dakota, water supply is the need. Low levels at Lake Oahe, created by the nearby Oahe Dam, caused severe water shortages during a drought nearly a decade ago, temporarily closing its hospital and forcing American Indians to drive hours to buy supplies from other towns.

That won’t happen again, said Phyllis Young, a member of the tribal council.

“Water is not a commodity,” she said. “When it comes down to our reliance on this system for clean drinking water, human consumption for my people is a more critical need than the barges,” she said.

North Dakota was relatively unscathed by this year’s drought. Floods that in 2011 overwhelmed the Missouri’s banks and inundated thousands of farmers left soil with extra moisture going into this year’s planting. That won’t be repeated this year, as the drought has migrated northward and now has much of southern North Dakota in “severe” conditions, according to the government.

About 97 per cent of the state’s reservoir water is held in two man-made lakes, Oahe and Lake Sakakawea, the third-largest artificial US lake. When water levels decline “it starts to affect our fisheries, the power plants in our region, recreation businesses,” said Michelle Klose, assistant state engineer for the North Dakota State Water Commission in Bismarck. “The importance for drinking water in our state is huge,” she said.

Missouri River water also plays a role in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a process in which millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are pumped into the ground to free oil and natural gas from rock formations.

A small amount of Missouri River water near the Williston area in the west of the state is used for fracking, though most liquid required for the practice taken from freshwater underground aquifers, Klose said. The state would like to see more of the river go for fracking to relieve its other water sources, she said.

The fracking boom has allowed North Dakota this year to pass Alaska and become the second-biggest US oil-producer after Texas. The growth will give the state a two-year budget surplus of US$1.6 billion by the end of June, its government projected in September.

“Everyone in each portion has needs that are important to them,” she said. “You can’t drain one basin to support another basin.”