Missouri Basin lawmakers fight water releases

Dec 28, 2012
by DTN

The legislative delegations from North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Kansas sent a joint letter to President Barack Obama, urging him to refrain from declaring an emergency on the Mississippi River due to economic losses from reduced barge traffic.

The letter also suggests the president doesn’t have the authority to make such a declaration, arguing that the laws governing such decisions let the president declare emergencies to save lives and property in the face of a natural disaster, but not to provide economic assistance.

“Seeking to utilize significant water resources on the Missouri River for the benefit of navigation on the Mississippi River would not only be short-sighted, but would also cause harm to our states and the other authorized purposes within the Missouri River Basin both in the short and long term,” the letter states.

The multi-year drought situation has tensions around water politics running high. It’s the peak shipping season for grain, and with low water levels threatening to halt commerce, downstream users are pressuring the president to intervene on behalf of the nation’s economic wellbeing.

A group of senators, congressmen and governors from Illinois, Louisiana and several other lower Mississippi River states sent a letter to the president recently asking for assistance.

“The economic impact will mean farmers will not be able to produce as much because they will not have the coal, fertilizer and other goods necessary to produce. More importantly, it harms America’s international com petitiveness and could stifle our nation’s farmers’ and ranchers’ ability to help meet the export initiative of doubling exports in five years,” said the letter written by Louisiana Commissioner of Agriculture Mike Strain.

The Mississippi River carries $100 billion of goods to export markets each year, including about half of the nation’s soybean exports and nearly 60 percent of corn exports. And with soybean exports expected to be frontloaded this year ahead of South America’s harvest, a stoppage from December to March would deal a blow to the ag economy.

Yet the heart of the drought has moved to the upper-Missouri River basin, and farmers there will need the water next spring. Corps officials are also worried that if they release too much water now, it will create potential ice-jam flooding upstream later in the winter.

The Army Corps of Engineers started reducing the release of water from the Missouri River system’s last dam to preserve water held in the reservoirs, as it does every year in accordance with the master control manual for the Missouri River.

The manual allows the Corps to manage the Missouri River for eight authorized purposes: flood control, hydropower, water supply, water quality, recreation, irrigation, fish and wildlife, and Missouri River navigation, according to the legislator’s letter.

Mississippi River navigation is not part of the list, and the congressmen cite a 1988 report by the Government Accountability Office that concludes the Corps is not authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1944 to operate Missouri River reservoirs for the primary benefit of navigation on the Mississippi.

“As the chief of the Corps’ Missouri Water Management Division has noted, “the drought in the Missouri River basin has affected the reservoir system in two ways: there is less water coming in and more water going out,” the letter stated. “Clearly, unlawful releases of additional water from Missouri River reservoirs will only exacerbate the droughtrelated losses already experienced by the communities, tribes and industries that rely on water from the Missouri River.”

The letter also suggests that the president would overstep his legal authority by declaring the reduction of barge traffic an emergency. The Stafford Act, which governs natural disaster assistance, allows the president to direct a federal agency to “save lives, protect property and public health and safely, and lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe.”

The Missouri Basin legislators said calls for an emergency declaration under the Stafford Act are misguided because the law is supposed to help those affected by a natural catastrophe, not an economic catastrophe.

“I understand the challenges those along the Mississippi River are facing, but an unlawful release of water would not only set a dangerous precedent, it would also have a negative impact on South Dakota farms and businesses that are also suffering from drought,” said Rep. Kristi Noem, R.-SD, in a press release. “I strongly urge President Obama and his administration not to exceed their legal authority to the detriment of our communities.” — Katie Micik, DTN