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Ken Royse, Published December 31 2010

Water storage study not necessary

For all of us concerned with our ability to access and use water from the Missouri River system, there is now a new issue on the horizon that threatens that ability.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has announced their intention of conducting a “system storage” study for the waters of Lake Sakakawea and Lake Oahe. The corps cites the 1944 Flood Control Act as authorizing and requiring such action. Now, 70 years after the passage of the act, the corps has decided to implement this provision.

This system storage study is proposed even though there is an ongoing five-year $25 million Authorized Purposes study under way to possibly revise the purposes of the reservoir system. Such ongoing AP study may make the entire system storage issue a moot point. And who is doing the ongoing $25 million AP study? It is the corps. It would seem logical that the agency would recognize and wait on any new (and possibly conflicting) system storage study while they were in the process of completing their own AP study.

The corps believes a system storage study is needed to identify and quantify surplus water, if any, within the reservoirs and then to issue water-use contracts to anyone hoping to use such water. This includes municipal, rural and industrial users. The intent of all this is to generate money from water users within the state of North Dakota to cover federal costs of initial construction and of current operations and maintenance of the federal facilities of the system.

So if the users in North Dakota need to pay a fee to maintain the dams, what then does the corps propose to charge the downstream users (the lower-basin navigators, communities and irrigators) for their share of such operation and maintenance? What are their costs of operation of the dams so they can continue to have water on demand, when and where they need such water?

Zero. Not a dollar, not a penny, not anything. All costs accrue to the users solely adjacent to the reservoirs, not to users along the natural river system. Those who have done and given so much to accommodate the dams are now asked to give again.

I think the users and the state of North Dakota have already paid enough: 500,000 acres of permanently flooded lands, an unwillingness of the corps to assist us in full beneficial use of the system, and a continued operation of the reservoirs for maximizing downstream benefits to the ongoing determent of the users of our state.

One would also think there must be some restrictions on such an action that clearly is so inequitable. Well, in fact, there is. The 1944 act was amended in 1958 to limit any repayment requirement by any water user for a term not to exceed 50 years – in other words, not past 2008. Additionally, the Dakota Water Resources Act of 2000, which further modified the 1944 act, specifically exempted all municipal, rural and industrial projects within the state from any such water payment provisions.

The corps is hosting a public meeting at 5 p.m. on Thursday at the Doublewood Inn in Bismarck. Do you believe we have paid enough? Do you believe that this is an unnecessary, and potentially an illegal, study by the corps? Are you concerned that access to the waters of the Missouri River system will significantly and permanently be hindered and restricted if this proceeds? If so, you need to attend this public meeting and express these concerns to the corps and support our state and local officials who also share these same concerns.

Royse is chairman of the Missouri River Joint Water Board.