A water war among river states

Friday, December 7, 2012
FILE - In this June 13, 2012 file photo Bich Nguyen catches a smallmouth bass at Gavins Point Dam on the Missouri River near Yankton, S.D. North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana, which in the past have brought suits to reduce water being released from dams to boost recreation, are once again battling battling downstream states facing a severe drought and low water levels that threaten commercial traffic along a 180-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill. (AP Photo/Argus Leader, Jay Pickthorn, File) NO SALES

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Water wars are raging in America's heartland, where drought-stricken states are pleading for the increasingly scarce water of the Missouri River -- to drink from their faucets, irrigate their crops and float the barges that carry billions of dollars of agricultural products to market.

From Montana to West Virginia, officials have urged President Barack Obama to intervene -- or not -- in a long-running dispute about whether water from the Missouri's upstream reservoirs should be released into the Mississippi River to ease low water levels that have imperiled commercial traffic.

Senators from 17 states along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers sent Obama a letter urging him to intervene and release water from Missouri River reservoirs. A day later, 15 officeholders from upstream Missouri River states countered with a letter warning the White House that intervention would be unlawful and would "only exacerbate the drought-related losses already experienced" by towns, American Indian tribes and industries that rely on the Missouri River.

The quarrel pits boaters, fishermen and tourism interests against communities downstream and companies that rely on the Mississippi to do business.

"We are back to the age-old old battle of recreation and irrigation vs. navigation," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri.

FILE - In this Nov. 28, 2012 file photo, a tow switching barges pulls an empty barge along side one filled with soybeans at an Archer Daniels Midland grain river terminal along the Mississippi River in Sauget, Ill. From Montana to West Virginia, officials from across the country have written to President Barack Obama urging him to intervene _ or not _ in a dispute about whether water from the Missouri Riverís upstream reservoirs should be released to flow into the Mississippi River, where low water levels have imperiled commercial traffic along a 180-mile stretch between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)

Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt said the battle is pitting states that worked together just last year on flooding issues against each other. Iowa and and Montana are on the other.

If the water is held back, downstream states warn that shipping on the Mississippi could come to a near standstill sometime after Christmas along a 180-mile stretch between St. Louis and the Southern Illinois town of Cairo. It could help the corps maintain the 9-feet-deep shipping channel it tries to keep open on the Mississippi River. With current river levels, the river is just a few feet away from getting too low for the channel to be maintained, despite furious dredging that's been going on for weeks.

But if the water is released, upstream communities worry that the toll of the drought could be even worse next year for farms and towns that depend on the Missouri.

Obama has not decided whether to enter the dispute, nor has the White House set a timetable to respond. But tensions are rising in the decades-old battle.

From his perch as executive director of the Southeast Missouri Regional Port Authority, Dan Overbey has watched this week as workers scrambled to ship as much grain as possible before the Mississippi gets so low that it is not economically feasible or physically possible to move loaded-down barges.

"I don't know if we'll have, 'How the Grinch Stole the River' here," Overbey said. But if there is water to spare, "it would be a good thing to do."

More than 800 miles northwest, Michael Dwyer also was stewing. He is executive vice president of the North Dakota Water Users Association.

To Dwyer, downriver interests are "taking selfishness" to "a level you can't even comprehend."

"We suffered the impact of these reservoirs" when they were created decades ago by dams that flooded 500,000 acres of bottomland, Dwyer said. "To have some use of the resource only seems appropriate."

At the Mississippi River port near Cape Girardeau, about a million tons of cargo are loaded or unloaded annually, providing about 200 jobs, Overbey said.

The water is also vital in parts of the Dakotas, where the dammed-up Missouri River has spawned tourism centered on boating and fishing.

Todd Martell serves as a guide for walleye fishing in the summer and also runs an upholstery business in Pierre, S.D., that makes custom boat covers and interior furnishings. Lower water levels don't necessarily hurt the fishing but can leave certain boat ramps high and dry, he said.

During the past three decades, more than a dozen lawsuits have been filed challenging the management of the river, many of which set Missouri and other downstream states against the Dakotas and other upstream states.

Battles began in 1982, when Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska challenged a government contract allowing water to be drawn from the Missouri River in South Dakota to flush coal through a pipeline to power plants in the southeast. The U.S. Supreme Court blocked the project, but other lawsuits followed, including an effort by upstream states to reduce the water released from dams in an attempt to boost sport fishing in the reservoirs.

Missouri, meanwhile, sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when it held back water because of droughts and shortened the navigation season. Environmental groups also joined the court battles, advocating for spring surges and summer declines in downstream river levels to help threatened species of birds and fish.

No lawsuits have been filed in the current competition for water. But battle lines have been drawn.

In May, North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven teamed up with Sen. Blunt to tour dams and levees along the Missouri River a year after devastating floods in 2011. The Republicans stressed their desire to work to improve flood control and river management. Now they are on opposing sides.

"There are times when they need to get rid of water, and we need to appreciate what we have to do about that," Blunt said. "And there are times when we need water, and they need to appreciate the fact that we need that water, even though they'd rather not get rid of it."

Said Sen. Hoeven: "Obviously, we're not going to be in agreement all the time."

Sen. Blunt said any solution pursued by Congress would be a slow process, involving not only business and tourism interests along the two rivers, but environmental groups and others.

"Opening up the [Missouri River] plan up legislatively is a big decision" that would lead to heated debates, Sen. Blunt said.

The Corps of Engineers, which manages both the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, says its guidelines prohibit it from releasing water from the Missouri River reservoirs for the primary purpose of improving navigation on the Mississippi.

That position was backed up by a 1990 report from the federal government's Government Accountability Office, though officials from downstream states believe Obama could trump that by declaring an emergency to avoid an "economic calamity."

Martell said it's difficult to envision a truce.

"The years we've really needed the water to stay here, it's gone," he said. "And then when we let it go, they complain about that, too. I don't think there's any happy medium, to be honest with you."

Managing editor Matt Sanders contributed to this report.

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