It is no surprise to learn that many of the major water issues
facing the Ninth District's western statesMontana and the
Dakotasinvolve the Missouri River.
Beginning at the juncture of the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin
Rivers northwest of Bozeman, Mont., the Missouri River moves across
Montana, curves through western and central North Dakota and then
nearly bisects South Dakota on its journey to St. Louis, where it
meets the Mississippi River. It is the lifeline of much of the northern
Great Plains, supplying water for domestic and industrial use, recreation,
irrigation and hydroelectric power.
In Great Falls, the river is a cultural and recreational force
In Montana, a $157 million renovation plan for seven dams on the
Missouri River has generated attention because of proposed recreational
enhancements to land near the dams. Two other dams located on the
Madison River, which feeds into the Missouri, are also slated for
renovation. But attention has focused on the Missouri, especially
near Great Falls, where five of the dams are all within an hour's
Montana Power Co. (MPC), which operates the nine dams, had to
submit a renovation plan as part of its effort to renew its operating
license, which expires in 1994. Mary Gail Sullivan, director of
hydro licensing for MPC, says that MPC's proposed recreational efforts
are meant to do two things: enhance its license renewal effort and
promote good will. MPC has a history of working with area groups
to preserve and enhance its natural resources, she says.
After 17 public meetings through mid-March, Sullivan says MPC
has had little negative input about its renovation plan, which mainly
involves replacing or repairing existing turbines and upgrading
other equipment. But the plan also includes proposals to upgrade
recreational sitesthrough additional signage, for example,
and expansion of biking and hiking trails, and studies of fish and
waterfowl. Plans also call for special archaeological digs in historically
Any plans to improve the Great Falls area recreational resources
are just icing on the cake for the city, which already relies heavily
on the Missouri River for its recreational and tourism resources.
Aside from venturing a guess of "millions of dollars a year," Mike
Labriola, executive vice president of the city's Chamber of Commerce,
says he is unable to quantify the river's economic impact on the
community. But he says it is "vitally important."
With boating, water skiing, float trips on the wilder portions
of the river, camping, hiking, and of coursefishingthe
river and reservoirs around Great Falls are always busy, he says.
Beyond recreational and economic benefits, Labriola says the Missouri
River, which winds through Great Falls, is a valuable cultural asset.
"The Missouri River is a part of our everyday life," Labriola says.
"It's difficult to assess its full impact because it is so important.
It permeates almost every aspect of our life."
At the outskirts of Great Falls, the river passes through Giant
Springs Park, the most-visited state park in Montana, according
to Labriola. And one of the most visited spots in that park is a
road-side overlook that was constructed, in part, with funds from
MPC, Labriola says. Another recent MPC project established a park
facility on an island beneath the falls of Ryan Dam, near Great
Falls; MPC also allows local groups to use a meeting room at Ryan
There are numerous other examples of MPC cooperation, Labriola
says, and he hopes that cooperation continues in the futureespecially
in the area of preservation and enhancement of historical areas.
Labriola believes that Great Falls' already successful tourism trade
will improve as the communities along the Missouri River's headwaters
develop their historical potential. One such development is a major
interpretive center planned for Fort Benton, north of Great Falls,
a boom town in the early days of Missouri River exploration. The
center is expected to be completed in about five years.
North Dakota gets serious about water supply, considers tax to fund water initiative
In North Dakota, which also depends on the Missouri River and
its reservoirs for its recreation and tourism industries, the river
issues are currently focused on more basic needs: consumption, irrigation
and industry. And the issue of water availability has become so
crucial that the state is prepared to ask its citizens to increase
their taxes to fund new projects.
Earlier this year, the North Dakota Water Strategy Task Force
submitted recommendations to the governor for North Dakota to establish
and protect its claims to Missouri River water. The effort, which
would be a sweeping attempt to get Missouri River water to all corners
of the state, would be funded by a one-half percent sales and excise
tax increaseeither through a voter referendum or by the State
Lloyd Omdahl, North Dakota's lieutenant governor and chairman
of the Task Force, says the state's current attempts to secure Missouri
River water will have a major bearing on the future development
of the state. There are communities in southwest North Dakota that
currently do not meet Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards
for safe drinking water, he says. Also, cities along the Red River
of the state's eastern border are hampered in their economic development
attempts because of a low supply of water. And in many areas of
the state, communities are searching for an adequate source of drinking
water and farmers need a plentiful and affordable supply of irrigation
water, he says.
"This is a race to get our share of [Missouri River] water committed,"
Omdahl says. "If we don't do this, we will lose our right to Missouri
Briefly, the Task Force's water plan includes proposals to:
- Complete the Southwest Pipeline to provide domestic and industrial
water to communities in southwest North Dakota;
- Develop a plan to provide water to northwest North Dakota,
- Deliver water to Devils Lake in northeast North Dakota, to
stabilize its water level;
- Provide water for multiple uses for the James, Sheyenne and
Red Rivers, whose basins include much of the eastern part of the
- Provide water for irrigation, including a cost-share plan for
completion of the Garrison Diversion Unit, an irrigation plan
that is to extend from the reservoir of the Garrison Dam through
the eastern part of the state;
- Establish a revolving fund for municipal, rural, domestic and
industrial water supply and distribution needs;
- And finally, to develop local recreation facilities throughout
In its report to the governor, the Task Force wrote: "This expedited
water development program will allow the state to meet the requirements
of the prior Appropriation Doctrine and its 'use it or lose it' mandate.
The state must use the water of the Missouri River if it is to secure
a legal right to that use."
Because the Missouri's route includes passage through typically
dry areassuch as eastern Montana and the Dakotasthat
need the water for consumption, as well as through states like Iowa
and Missouri that rely on barge transportation, the Missouri River
has inherent conflicts over water use. Not surprisingly, the upper
basin states have water laws that emphasize consumption rights (primarily
for irrigation), while lower basin states have laws that require
largely unimpeded water flow for navigation and hydroelectric power.
Long-running conflicts between upper and lower basin states finally
gave rise to a lawsuit last year by the northern states against
the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, disputing Corps management of
the river and its reservoirs. A recent report by the General Accounting
Office that supports the northern states' claims means that the
lawsuit may be settled soon, and in a manner favorable to the northern
But Omdahl and the members of the state's Water Task Force say
that regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit against the Corps,
which mainly involves the amount of water that is allowed to flow
out of the Missouri's reservoirs, the state must ultimately concern
itself with the use of the water within those reservoirs. "Economic
development will not reach its potential in this state until Missouri
River and other waters are distributed and available on a statewide
basis," they write in their report to the governor.
In Sioux Falls, water availability is a concern for the future
About eight years ago, South Dakota's fastest growing city, Sioux
Falls, had similar economic development concerns about water availabilityso
much so that city officials believed that a lack of water would
hamper the city's growth in the short run.
But those worries were alleviated, according to Steve Metli, director
of planning and building services for the southeastern South Dakota
city, and the city went on to achieve a level of economic development
that was the envy of many regional cities in the 1980s.
But concerns about water supply have recently become a priority
issue for city leaders, although the focus this time is not on the
short run; rather, city planners are looking 30 to 40 years down
the road. Originally, officials believed the city's current aquifer
supply would suffice until 2035, but an alternative is now believed
necessary by 2020, and the city is looking to the Missouri River
for its future use.
The Missouri passes about 60 miles to the southwest of the city,
and Sioux Falls has already cleared one important hurdle in its
bid for the river's waterit holds legal rights. According
to Lyle Johnson, the city's water and waste water treatment manager,
the prior city officials who secured those water rights have made
his job much easier. Because of the city's current and projected
growth and the problems with intermittent drought, the lack of a
new water source by 2020 "would be devastating to the city," he
But city officials aren't panicking. "We expect to have the water
in hand well before it becomes a major issue," Metli says. The first
major issue will be devising a way to receive the Missouri River
water. One of the most ambitious Missouri pipeline plans, the Lewis
and Clark Rural Water System, would divert water to about 50 communities
in South Dakota (including Sioux Falls), Iowa and Minnesota. The
790 miles of pipeline would cost $530 million and, following approval
by Congress, be financed by federal, state and local governments.
If approved, the plan would be the most expensive such water diversion
project in South Dakota's history, dwarfing by five times the recently
completed WEB project (named for three counties), which diverted
Missouri River water to communities in northeastern South Dakota.
Bill Dempsey, coordinator of the South Dakota Association of Rural
Water Systems, is confident the pipeline diversion will be approved
by Congress and be operational by 2000.
"This is the best plan for a long-term solution," Dempsey says,
because it will ensure water over the long term for the city and
will also enhance communities throughout its retail trade area.