Missouri balks at river proposal

Tuesday, February 8, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:19 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 2, 2008

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Gov. Mike Rounds’ suggestion to tinker with the downstream navigation season as a means of saving water in the drought-affected Missouri River reservoirs was met with criticism from Missouri’s representation during a Monday conference.

At a meeting of Missouri River states, Rounds proposed changing how and when water is released for the downstream barge industry to keep more in the reservoirs and to avoid a “navigational preclude” that’s part of the Army Corps of Engineers' master manual for operating the dams and reservoirs.

The preclude kicks in when water storage on the reservoirs falls to 31 million acre-feet. At that time, the corps limits releases from the southernmost reservoir to a level that can’t sustain barge traffic below Sioux City, Iowa.

Much of the day’s discussion revealed familiar themes: Upstream states want more water kept in the lakes for recreation and domestic water supplies, while downstream states want a steady flow for navigation, to cool power plants and for their municipal water systems.

Missouri’s representative at the meeting voiced the most opposition to Rounds’ suggestion. Rounds was able only to get agreement that governors from Missouri River states would work on a resolution encouraging the corps to conserve water whenever possible.

The system now has a record low 35 million acre-feet of water, compared to the normal level of 57 million acre-feet. Based on current snow-pack conditions and projected runoff, the corps and others acknowledge the 31 million acre-feet trigger is almost a certainty in the summer of 2006 and likely in 2007.

Rounds argued that holding back some water this year might be enough to avoid the trigger next year.

Ron Kucera, of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, said changing the flow schedule now would interfere with contracts already signed to haul fertilizer, asphalt and other products by barge this spring and summer.

“Our businesses, our farmers, need reliability and certainty (with water flows) and thought when we got a new master manual — even if they didn’t like it — it would have some reliability and certainty,” Kucera said.

The navigational preclude may be an advantage for upper basin states, said North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven, who backed Rounds’ proposal.

“We may build up (reservoir levels) faster by just following the manual than actually what Mike is proposing, although I think Mike is making a good-faith effort to say, ‘Hey, let’s learn from the past, let’s conserve water, this affects everybody,’” said Hoeven.

Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer also attended. The governors of Missouri, Kansas and Iowa sent representatives.

Presentations throughout the day illustrated how low water levels in the reservoir and low flows below Sioux City, Iowa, affect fish reproduction, recreation and intakes that carry water to drinking water systems or power plant cooling systems.

Charles Murphy, chairman of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota and South Dakota, said low water on Lake Oahe led to siltation clogging the intake pipes on a water system. Schools, hospitals, businesses and 10,000 people were without water.

The tribe spent $3 million for a quick fix, to shuttle the elderly and hospital patients and for temporary toilets.

“People suffered and they don’t want this crisis again,” Murphy said.

Emergency pumping systems for power plants and water systems can take years to design and build at a cost that generally is passed on to the consumer, said Darrell Dorsey of the Kansas City, Kan., Board of Public Utilities.

Rounds and Hoeven pointed out that low-water problems in their states will spread to downstream states at the 31 million acre-feet trigger. When downriver flows are low enough, power producers “will take it in the shorts,” Rounds said.

“I did not realize that the persuasion of the barge industry would be greater than perhaps the persuasive discussion or points made by the power-producing organizations or a whole lot of consumers in the lower basin,” he told Kucera.

He intimated later that this may be the only time for compromise.

“I will tell you that it will be our (South Dakota) position that should we not find compromise on this issue this year, when preclude occurs next year, we will most certainly ask that it be fully enforced in an effort to conserve water for the following year,” Rounds said.

Schweitzer said the worry in his state is that with two years of low flow from the 31 million acre-feet trigger, downstream states will argue they aren’t getting their share of water and will make it a political fight in Washington.

“We know preclude is not a good place to go politically,” Schweitzer said. “We know there’s a master manual and some highfalutin folks worked on this for a dozen years and now it’s all cast in concrete. But when folks don’t have water to drink in big cities, it becomes a big problem, not a little problem like it is when it’s 10,000 people on an Indian reservation in North or South Dakota.”

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