The Missouri River: A view from upstream


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Prairie Fire continues the discussion of our region’s great rivers. As a follow-up to Bob Kerrey’s Missouri River essay in the September issue, this letter presenting the South Dakota governor’s perspective is a great addition. We print it, in its entirety, for the following reasons: *The letter is a tour de force of the history of the Pick-Sloan Project that changed the form and flow of the Missouri River. *The governor’s view is representative of many upstream residents within the Missouri River Valley. *The words within the letter provide a civil and thoughtful analysis of the last 63 years of change on the river. We hope that our readers will enjoy Governor Rounds’ thought-provoking letter, and will find it helpful in forming their own opinions during their participation in the ongoing debates regarding the use of our land and water resources. July 10, 2007 The Honorable John Paul Woodley Jr.
Assistant Secretary of the Army(Civil Works)
108 Army Pentagon
Washington, DC 20310-0180 Dear Secretary Woodley: As you are aware, over the past seven years the Missouri River Basin has endured the worst drought since the passage of the 1944 Flood Control Act. Only the drought of the 1930s has been more devastating to this river basin. Ironically, it was major flooding that provided the impetus for the congressional passage of the Flood Control Act. Large flood events in 1908, 1909, 1915, 1927, 1935, 1942, and multiple flood events in 1943 and 1944 inundated huge amounts of land and caused loss of life, tremendous property damage and loss of food production, which led Congress to action. The Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Program created by this legislation authorized flood control, navigation, irrigation, hydropower, water supply, water quality, recreation, and fish and wildlife as authorized project purposes on the Missouri River. Unfortunately, not all the assumptions made in 1944 on how the Corps of Engineers should manage the river proved to be valid. When the Corps constructed the Missouri River main-stem dams in the 1950s and 1960s following passage of the Pick-Sloan Plan, the goals for dam and reservoir operations were to reduce flood damage, enhance navigation, generate hydroelectric power and store water for irrigation. The original Pick-Sloan agreement promised 5.3 million acres of irrigation development, including four million acres in the upper basin states. Irrigation was to be the primary benefit to the upstream states in return for lands flooded by the main-stem reservoirs. South Dakotans were promised over 950,000 acres of irrigation in return for the permanent flooding of over 500,000 acres of our best farm and ranch land adjacent to the Missouri River. Tribal towns were relocated and trust lands containing significant cultural resources were lost to the rising waters. Irrigation was supposed to be so successful that it would bring a projected hauling of 12 million tons of grain and other products annually on tows and barges from Sioux City to St. Louis. The promised irrigation benefits, however, never materialized. Only 24,000 acres (2 percent) of the promised federal development of irrigation in South Dakota have become reality. By 1982, only 560,000 acres of the original 5.3 million acres had been developed. The majority of irrigation development occurred in Nebraska and Kansas, states which lost virtually no land to the reservoirs. As a result, the navigation industry, which expected to haul 12 million tons annually, peaked in 1977 at 3.3 million tons and has trended downward since. In 2006, barges moved only 0.2 million tons on the Missouri River. That’s equivalent to the amount moved daily on the Mississippi River. Given the growing interest in ethanol and biodiesel production, where grains are used locally at ethanol plants, one could expect the demand to move commodities by Missouri River barges will continue to decline. The two other benefits that were a part of the vision for the 1944 Flood Control Act were flood control and hydropower generation. Flood control has saved over $31 billion in damages since the first dam was constructed. In 1997, when the basin had its largest one-year runoff event ever recorded, the reservoirs provided over $6.8 billion in flood control, primarily for downstream states. The second benefit was hydropower generation. In 1944, hydropower was considered an important, but somewhat secondary, component of the Pick-Sloan Plan. Rural electric associations were in their infancy, and the hydropower program was to serve as the foundation for irrigation development. While that never occurred, the demand for electrical power today is more important than originally anticipated, providing power for commercial, industrial and rural-urban domestic consumption. The Western Area Power Administration (WAPA), which markets the power to wholesale customers in the basin, has had their ability to meet firm power demands severely impacted by the current drought. Much of that is attributed to the loss of generating efficiency resulting from the low reservoir levels. Since January 2004, rates to wholesale customers have increased 37.3 percent to cover cost of power purchased off the open market due, in part, to reduced reservoir levels. What no one anticipated in 1944 was the explosive growth of recreation in the upper basin reservoirs. In 1954, there were approximately four million visitor hours on the main-stem reservoirs. Ten years later, with the closure of the last reservoir, that number had increased to over 10 million. By the late 1990s, the number of hours spent recreating on the Missouri River reservoirs peaked at over 60 million visitor hours. Corps of Engineer studies placed the annual economic impact of recreation on the Missouri River at between $80-$100 million. In South Dakota, based on the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife Associated Recreation, a joint study completed by the Department of the Interior and Department of Commerce (1995), recreation on Lake Oahe, Lake Sharpe and Fort Randall represented a $36 million annual impact. With the onset of the drought in 2000, boaters found access to the Oahe reservoir increasingly difficult. Even with the expenditure of 4.5 million state dollars over a five-year period, the number of functioning boat ramps on Oahe fell from 32 ramps under normal conditions to where, at one point in 2004, only 11 ramps remained in service. As reservoir levels fell, boaters simply went elsewhere. What had been a $25 million annual industry on Lake Oahe became $12 million as the reservoir level fell. The Missouri River also serves as the source of water for many public drinking-water systems. In South Dakota, the WEB rural water project, located in north-central South Dakota, was the first large-scale rural-water system to take advantage of the Missouri River as a source of quality water. That system was followed by the Mid-Dakota and Mni Wiconi Rural Water Systems in the central and southwestern part of our state. Presently, the Lewis and Clark Rural Water System is under construction to provide drinking water to southeastern South Dakota, as well as parts of Iowa and Minnesota. When these water supply projects are fully completed, the Missouri River will provide drinking water to approximately 65 percent of the landmass of South Dakota and 50 percent of the population. Falling reservoir levels and river stages has necessitated the expenditure of millions of dollars to maintain drinking-water intakes. In 2003, on Thanksgiving weekend, the community of Fort Yates on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation awoke to an intake that was no longer functional due to sedimentation caused by falling reservoir levels. The Mni Waste Rural Water System on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, in a joint project with the Corps, is relocating their intake at a cost of over $14 million. Parshall, N.D., has had to extend their intake at a cost of $2.3 million. Public drinking-water systems up and down the river are facing similar situations. The Corps of Engineers finds itself in the unenviable position of having to operate a reservoir system in the 21st century constrained by the statutory and legal requirements of a 1944 vision. The large-scale irrigation development that was promised the upper basin simply isn’t going to occur. We recognize that and accept it. Navigation, which was going to move the grain from those irrigated acres, plies the waters today mostly moving sand and gravel in the lower basin from the middle of the river to shore. The anticipated 12 million tons of commodities that were to move annually on the river are a disappearing dream. When our soldiers were returning from World War II, they were ready to go to work on the 1944 vision for the Flood Control Act. However, nobody could predict the way the beneficial uses for the dams and reservoirs would play out as time went on. For instance, nobody could anticipate the demand for recreation 63 years later. As we become a more urban society, with more leisure time, the demand for recreation will only continue to grow. The Endangered Species Act, which wasn’t to become law until 30 years later, makes operation of a reservoir system intricately more complex. In 1944, Native American cultural resource and burial sites were not a priority. Today, desecration of these sites is a federal offense, and federal and state actions are required to offer protection in consultation with tribes. It is an unfortunate reality that the 1944 Flood Control Act ties the Corps to this outdated vision. By law, the Corps is required to support a navigation season. In 2006, approximately 11.7 million acre-feet of water were released from upper basin reservoirs for downstream navigation support, of which six million acre-feet of water were also used to meet water-supply and water-quality needs. The remaining 5.7 million acre-feet of water were discharged exclusively for navigation support to move 0.2 million tons of goods. Over the past seven years of drought, 47 million acre-feet of water have been released from upstream reservoirs, exclusively for navigation support, to move 5.4 million tons of products. That’s less than 800,000 tons of products annually! The cost to the rest of the basin has been immense. As reservoir levels fall, the efficiency of hydropower generation drops by as much as 30 percent. WAPA spends millions of dollars purchasing power off the open market to meet firm power contracts. Public drinking-water systems have been forced to spend millions to relocate intakes. The impacts to recreation have been especially severe because many of these dollars were going into small-town main-street businesses. The Corps of Engineers has spent millions building habitat for endangered species. Had the Corps not been constrained by the need to support navigation, much of that habitat could have been created naturally, letting the river do most of the work. The 1944 vision of Commissioner Sloan and Colonel Pick is clearly no longer in the best interests of the people of the basin. It’s time for a fresh look at how we do business on the present-day Missouri River. Drought has exposed the deficiencies and lack of adaptive management flexibility under the 1944 Flood Control Act and the current COE Missouri River Master Manual. It’s ironic that during the final construction period of the Missouri River Project, General Barney, then the chief of the Missouri River Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, stated, “These systems of reservoirs and other works we are building have the primary utilitarian purpose of providing protection and economic advancement in our Basin, but long after they are completed and serving their purposes, they will be best remembered by the people as family recreation areas.” General Barney’s message rings loud and true. Consequently, by way of this letter, I am requesting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the secretary of the interior, along with affected states and tribes, to assess, model and report the impacts of the following plans: *Current Missouri River Water Control Plan *Alternate Missouri River Water Control Plan with increased flexibility which: *Meets the water-supply and water-quality needs of BOTH the upper and lower Missouri River Basin. *Does not support navigation on the Missouri River - deauthorization of Missouri River navigation. *Supports Mississippi River navigation targets from St. Louis, Miss., to Cairo, Ill. The actual change, relative impacts (percent change) and dollar values, where appropriate, should be included in the report of impacts of the two compared plans. Impacts to be addressed should include, but not be limited to, the following elements: *Flood control *Water supply and water quality *Irrigation *Mississippi and Missouri River navigation *Power generation *Recreation *Fish and wildlife; endangered species *Historic and cultural properties *System storage Current research and collaborative working efforts indicate that the benefits of such assessment and modeling would allow us to examine the alternatives for a more adaptive approach to water management in both the Missouri River and the Mississippi River basins. Both of these river basins are of global importance and critical to our national economy and heritage. I firmly believe we have an opportunity to make wise decisions that will guide the management of these systems in a way that looks to the future, addresses a much wider flexibility in dealing with drought, and provides for continued growth and sustainability of communities and natural resources. By working together, we can realize a better future for these two great rivers. I am prepared to enlist the help and support of the governors in both the Missouri River and Mississippi River basins in approaching Congress to direct the secretaries of the Army and Interior to create a credible process aimed at conducting this requested assessment and modeling as an initial step in obtaining a modern Missouri River management plan with the flexibility to adapt, not hamstring, future generations of the Missouri River basin. Your response to this request is both anticipated and appreciated. Sincerely, M. Michael Rounds
Governor, State of South Dakota

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