New charge for Mo River sparks anger

By Dale Wetzel
Bismarck, North Dakota (AP) January 2011

North Dakota’s governor and attorney general and the chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes are promising a fight over an Army Corps of Engineers proposal to charge water users for surplus water drawn from Lake Sakakawea.

“Charging the people of North Dakota for water that they already own is really ridiculous,” Gov. Jack Dalrymple said in an interview. “It’s actually hard to believe that they would even propose such a thing.”

The corps is taking public comment on the proposal, which is part of an agency evaluation of surplus water available in each of the six reservoirs along the Missouri River. Lake Sakakawea, in west-central North Dakota, is the largest of the six.

Dalrymple, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Tex Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes, were among more than 250 people who attended a Corps of Engineers public hearing last week at a Bismarck hotel.

A procession of speakers lambasted the idea, which they said was especially wrongheaded after the sacrifice of thousands of acres of prime farmland to create the lake. The Garrison Dam, which formed Lake Sakakawea, was built in the early 1950s; the lake split the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, which is home to the Three Affiliated Tribes.

Pat Wheeler, of Minot, called the proposal “asinine.”

“Nobody was ever (told) that the corps is going to build a dam to store water for you, and then, guess what, down the road, we’re going to charge,” Wheeler said. “How ridiculous is that?”

Brian Grossman, 23, who uses irrigation to raise corn, soybeans and wheat near Linton in south-central North Dakota, said the proposal would discourage young people from going into farming by raising the cost of doing so.

“How many young farmers are willing to come back to the farm and produce America’s food?” Grossman said. “It won’t be much easier if we’re adding additional expenses.”

North Dakota officials want to tap the lake’s vast water supplies to continue a boom in oil development in the western part of the state. Each well drilled can require up to 3 million gallons of water, which is pumped underground as part of a “fracking” process to crack oil-producing shale rock, which allows the oil to flow.

A Corps of Engineers surplus water analysis of Lake Sakakawea, published last month, recommends making available up to 100,000 acre-feet of water each year while the agency studies whether to permanently reallocate the stored water in the reservoir.

Municipal, industrial and agricultural water users would have to pay a storage charge of about $21 per acre-foot, which equals almost 326,000 gallons. The 100,000 acre-feet is 32.6 billion gallons, which is enough to drill more than 10,000 oil wells.

Stenehjem said Congress gave North Dakota ownership of free-flowing water within the state’s borders when the state was admitted to the Union in 1889.

“For them to come in, as the Corps of Engineers, and to suggest that now we need to pay them to use our own water, is really an insult . and I think it is legally unfounded,” Stenehjem said in an interview.

Dalrymple said he hoped the corps, faced with a political backlash, would drop the idea of levying a storage charge.

“The notion that everyone in North Dakota would suddenly have to begin paying more than $20 an acre-foot for Missouri River water is a huge long-term economic impact,” Dalrymple said. “That has huge implications, not just in the short term, but for literally generations.”