Water Wars Pit Dakotas Against Barges for Missouri Flow

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 U.S. senators along the Mississippi, the U.S. 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. Lawmakers from states along the Missouri River 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.

Army Corps

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 shipping would have to be halted in a section near the river’s midpoint south of St. Louis. At risk are 20,000 jobs and $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 the increased flow to reach the parched portions of the Mississippi, which the Missouri 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 U.S. unemployment rate -- all require the Missouri’s water.

‘Very Intense’

“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 bottom, something that drives up the cost of moving the $7 billion worth of grain, coal and other goods that the Waterways Operators say typically ship on the Mississippi in December and January.

The Army Corps says navigation will be impaired by Dec. 11 and a record low-water mark will be set on Dec. 22, barring any unexpected rain or other event. The Waterways Operators and the Waterways Council Inc., another trade group also based in Arlington, Virginia, say traffic will be impeded Dec. 10 from St. Louis south about 180 miles (290 kilometers) to Cairo, where the Mississippi meets the Ohio River.

Blasting Pinnacles

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 U.S. will begin demolishing the rocks by Jan. 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 North Dakota congressional delegation, along with the state’s 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.”

Missouri’s Waters

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

Agriculture groups including the American Farm Bureau Federation, the biggest U.S. farmer organization, wrote Obama yesterday, saying shipment of 500,000 tons of fertilizer shipments -- up to 60 percent of what farmers will need for spring planting -- may be disrupted without action.

“Reduced supplies in export positions would pressure farm prices and erode the United States’ ability and reputation as a reliable supplier of agricultural products to serve foreign buyers,” the groups wrote.

Emergency Declaration

The Army Corps has the authority to provide additional water flow for downstream interests and has done so several times in the past, Missouri Governor 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 Missouri River 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 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.

Master Manual

The so-called Master Manual, first published in the 1960s and revised in 2004 to create more stringent drought-management rules, guides yearly operating plans 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 a 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 for drinking and other uses besides irrigation 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 tribe members to drive hours to buy supplies from other towns.

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

‘Not a Commodity’

“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 farms left soil with extra moisture going into this year’s planting. That won’t be repeated for the next crops, as the drought has migrated northward and much of southern North Dakota is now suffering under “severe” dry conditions, according to the government.

About 97 percent of the state’s reservoir water is held in two man-made lakes, Oahe and Sakakawea, the country’s third-largest artificial 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.

Fracking Boom

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 drillers mostly rely on 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 U.S. oil-producer after Texas. The growth will give the state a two-year budget surplus of $1.6 billion by the end of June, its government projected in September.

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