For the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, whose lands straddle the North and South Dakota border, river water means drinking supplies. For Illinois farmers, it’s irrigation for their crops.
Rivers also power hydro-electric plants, provide recreation for boaters and give coal companies inexpensive access to export markets with barges to New Orleans.
Balancing these competing demands on the nation’s water resources has never been easy. Global warming, linked to near-record low water levels on the Mississippi River this year as well as last year’s severe floods along the Missouri River, is making the task even harder.
“You end up pitting one constituency against another, and then you mud-wrestle over the right balance,” Ben Grumbles, president of the Washington-based environmental group U.S. Water Alliance, said. “Climate change means water change.”
It may also mean more disputes such as the one that erupted in recent weeks in the Midwest. Shippers and political leaders from along the Mississippi River’s midsection asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to adjust its dams so more Missouri River water would flow into the drought-shrunken Mississippi, keeping barges moving on the nation’s busiest waterway. States along the upper Missouri opposed that and the Army Corps refused.
The agency did on Dec. 15 begin to increase the flow from Carlyle Lake on the Kaskaskia River system in Southwest Illinois, something it said may add six inches of water to the lowest point of the Mississippi. It also expedited the planned blasting of riverbed rock structures south of St. Louis, work that is expected to begin today. Waterway groups say dramatic action is needed to keep billions of dollars worth of grain, coal and other goods moving if, as projected, water levels fall to record lows at the end of this month.
In its letter to Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, the Army Corps cited other uses for the Missouri River as reasons for not meeting the shippers’ demands. Irrigation, fish and wildlife habitat, recreation and drinking water would all be harmed by releasing the water, the Army Corps wrote. Lower reservoir levels also threatened to expose and possibly damage artifacts from American Indian tribes, it said.
Durbin held a meeting today in East Alton, Illinois, with shippers and the Army Corps. Afterwards he told reporters, “I have been encouraged by the federal response to this situation so far.”
The government will increasingly need to referee such disputes as average temperatures in much of the U.S. may increase by five degrees Fahrenheit by the 2080s, straining river systems, Grumbles said. Earlier thaws and smaller snowpacks will decrease flows from mountains. Increased evaporation rates will dry out some areas and create excess rainfall in others, resulting in more volatile water levels and more frequent floods and droughts, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Carbon-dioxide emissions since the Industrial Revolution have led to a warming of the Earth’s temperature, which threatens to cause extreme weather, drought and coastal flooding, according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program.
The pressure on waterways is a nationwide problem. In the Colorado River basin serving cities including Denver, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix, strains of meeting a growing population will persist for at least the next 50 years, the Interior Department said in a study released last week. The waterway’s seven-state region provides water to some 40 million people, a number that may nearly double by 2060, the study said.
Meeting that region’s needs will “take diligent planning and collaboration from all stakeholders,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement. Still, tapping the Missouri or other rivers to supplement Colorado basin flows, one idea proposed to relieve pressures, isn’t “feasible,” he said in a teleconference.
Conflicts over the Missouri’s waters “will be increasingly intense over the years ahead with climate change and what is expected to be more severe cycles of moisture,” said Bernard Shanks, a fellow at the Mill Valley, California-based Resource Renewal Institute.
In 2004, drought concerns prompted a revision of the manual the Army Corps uses to judge how much of the Missouri’s water to hold back in giant reservoirs. Rules require enough reserve to handle a 12-year drought. About 20 percent of that amount is expected to be drawn down this year alone, according to Jody Farhat, chief of Missouri River basin management for the Army Corps. Farhat said she is now planning for the “long game, not the immediate future.”
Shippers and carriers still want Missouri River water. “There is the real chance that navigation could at best be severely impaired, and at worst effectively shut down, for an extended period of time if necessary actions are not taken immediately,” American Waterways Operators President Tom Allegretti said in a statement on Dec. 7. A closing would imperil farm exports and fertilizer shipments needed by February for U.S. spring planting, he said.
The setback for shipping interests is a shift from river-management priorities that dominated the 20th century, said Robert Kelley Schneiders, an environmental consultant at EcoInTheKnow in Boulder, Colorado, who has written books about the Missouri.
As far back as the 1800s, the barge industry has always held powerful sway over river use, he said. The current dam system itself was created to promote shipping along the lower Missouri, which has never been realized, Schneiders said.
Still, 20th-century dreams of dictating a river’s path have proven difficult. The Missouri River, the nation’s longest, has continued to rebel, despite the construction of six main dams along the waterway from the 1940s through the 1960s. Elwood, Kansas, was submerged by floodwaters in 1993, and flooding last year caused an estimated $5 billion in damage.
“In June of 2011 I never would have expected a drought to follow,” Shanks said.
Meanwhile, a recreation industry has grown up along reservoirs. Cities and farmers rely on the rivers for clean water and irrigation. The rights of American Indians, an afterthought in initial plans, have gained prominence, as have concerns about wildlife habit and soil erosion. Even hydraulic fracturing, the technology that’s fueling an oil and gas boom in North Dakota, will increasingly require Missouri River water, said Michelle Klose, assistant engineer for the North Dakota State Water Commission in Bismarck.
The experience of Standing Rock, which lost more than 55,000 acres of land when the Army Corps created the Lake Oahe reservoir in the late 1950s, shows the evolution. Phyllis Young, then 10 years old, said she lost her home to the Oahe Dam, just north of Pierre, South Dakota, even as the government promised to create a bustling barge industry further downriver. Federal compensation inadequate for relocation costs led to litigation that continues to this day.
As a legacy, the tribe is very suspicious of government water engineering, said Young, a member of the tribal council. “I know what it is to be homeless,” she said. “This is not going to happen again.”
Government consideration of the Sioux, and river priorities, have changed since then. During a drought on the Northern Plains from 2000-2007, levels behind the Oahe Dam fell too low for the tribe to have access to fresh water, closing its hospital. That possibility was one of the “likely negative effects” cited by the Army last week for not releasing more of the Missouri’s water.
Longtime stakeholders aren’t pleased with the direction of river management. Martin Hettel, senior manager of bulk sales for AEP River Operations LLC of Chesterfield, Missouri, said that, with the Army Corps coming out against additional water from the Missouri, shippers must now “continue to pray for rain.”
Ken Hartman, a farmer from Waterloo, Mississippi, who relies on the river to ship his corn and soybeans to markets, said regulators should remember what he said is the core purpose of waterway engineering: commerce.
“It seems like they don’t care about transportation, they care about every other use,” said Hartman. Holding Missouri River water back “is going to be detrimental for the whole economy,” he said.
The Army Corps’ decision shows “more of an adaptation model” in management, Schneiders said, one that takes into account different uses as well as the health of the river. It’s “the right thing to do,” he said.
Young, the tribal counselor from Standing Rock, doesn’t think any of the approaches will be successful.
“When you drop water on the ground, it doesn’t stay there, it goes in all different directions,” she said. “Water can’t be controlled.”