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Published May 23 2012

Forum editorial: Water fee proposal unjustified

Lake Sakakawea lies strategically at the heart of western North Dakota’s booming Bakken Formation. But the state’s most valuable water resource has been off-limits to oil development, a heavy water user, because of bureaucratic dithering.

The bad news just got worse. The Army Corps of Engineers, after months of reviewing public comments urging free access to Lake Sakakawea water, recently gave notice that it will move ahead with a plan to draft a national policy for using water in its reservoirs. The corps will spend the next 18 months determining “if or what pricing would be appropriate.” Any amount would be an insult and an injury.

Let’s remember that North Dakota sacrificed 550,000 acres of prime bottomland for Lake Sakakawea and Lake Oahe when the Garrison Dam and the Oahe Dam were built along the Missouri River. All but 70 miles or so of the river through North Dakota flows within one of the two reservoirs. That means the corps controls access to the vast majority of the river – for municipalities, irrigators and industry.

Unfortunately, the corps seems to have forgotten that the Missouri River still runs through its reservoirs. The state of North Dakota argues, persuasively, that any water drawn from the river will be a small percentage of its natural flows – not from surplus water stored in the reservoirs.

In drafting a national policy on its surplus water, the corps is moving to implement a “one size fits all” solution. The impetus seems to stem from fees it charges to encourage water conservation from small reservoirs in the Southeast – mere ponds compared to the mammoth reservoirs on the upper Missouri River. In light of that gaping disparity, it should be clear that this isn’t a situation that calls for mindless uniformity.

Last year, North Dakota’s oil industry used 9,300 acre-feet of water. That’s up from 5,700 feet in 2010, the year the corps began blocking access to the Missouri River while it considers imposing a fee. The corps will make available about 100,000 acre-feet of water at no cost while it drafts its surplus water policy.

As state officials have pointed out, North Dakota has a legal right to Missouri River water. The state is asking, reasonably, to be excluded from the one-size-fits-all policy. The corps should grant that request. And if it doesn’t, the state of North Dakota should do what Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem has promised: “We will vigorously defend our legal right to the natural flows of the Missouri River which were guaranteed to us at statehood.”


Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board