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Missouri River is the lifeblood of the northern Great Plains

April 1, 1992


Missouri River is the lifeblood of the northern Great Plains

It is no surprise to learn that many of the major water issues facing the Ninth District's western states—Montana and the Dakotas—involve 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 drive.

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 sites—through 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 significant areas.

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 course—fishing—the 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 Dam.

There are numerous other examples of MPC cooperation, Labriola says, and he hopes that cooperation continues in the future—especially 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 increase—either through a voter referendum or by the State Legislature.

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 water."

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, including Williston;
  • 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 state;
  • 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 the state.

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 areas—such as eastern Montana and the Dakotas—that 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 states.

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 availability—so 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 water—it 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 says.

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.