Climate change pits Sioux tribe against bargesWater becoming scarce as levels drop in Missouri River in SD.
By: ALAN BJERGA, Bloomberg News
WASHINGTON — For the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, whose lands straddle the North and South Dakota border, river water means drinking supplies. For Illinois farmers, it’s irrigation for their crops.
Rivers also power hydro-electric plants, provide recreation for boaters and give coal companies inexpensive access to export markets with barges to New Orleans.
Balancing these competing demands on the nation’s water resources has never been easy. Global warming, linked to nearrecord low water levels on the Mississippi River this year as well as last year’s severe floods along the Missouri River, is making the task even harder.
“You end up pitting one constituency against another, and then you mud-wrestle over the right balance,” said Ben Grumbles, president of the Washington-based environmental group U.S. Water Alliance. “Climate change means water change.”
The experience of Standing Rock, which lost more than 55,000 acres of land when the Army Corps created the Lake Oahe reservoir in the late 1950s, shows the evolution. Phyllis Young, then 10 years old, said she lost her home to the Oahe Dam, just north of Pierre even as the government promised to create a bustling barge industry further downriver. Federal compensation inadequate for relocation costs led to litigation that continues to this day.
As a legacy, the tribe is very suspicious of government water engineering, said Young, a member of the tribal council. “I know what it is to be homeless,” she said. “This is not going to happen again.”
Government consideration of the Sioux, and river priorities, have changed since then. During a drought on the Northern Plains from 2000-2007, levels behind the Oahe Dam fell too low for the tribe to have access to fresh water, closing its hospital. That possibility was one of the “likely negative effects” cited by the Army last week for not releasing more of the Missouri’s water.
Climate change may also mean more disputes such as the one that erupted in recent weeks in the Midwest. Shippers and political leaders from along the Mississippi River’s midsection asked the Army Corps of Engineers to adjust its dams so more Missouri River water would flow into the drought-shrunken Mississippi, keeping barges moving on the nation’s busiest waterway. States along the upper Missouri opposed that and the Army Corps refused.
Conflicts over the Missouri’s waters “will be increasingly intense over the years ahead with climate change and what is expected to be more severe cycles of moisture,” said Bernard Shanks, a fellow at the Mill Valley, Calif.-based Resource Renewal Institute.
In 2004, drought concerns prompted a revision of the manual the Army Corps uses to judge how much of the Missouri’s water to hold back in giant reservoirs. Rules require enough reserve to handle a 12-year drought. About 20 percent of that amount is expected to be drawn down this year alone, according to Jody Farhat, chief of Missouri River basin management for the Army Corps. Farhat said she is now planning for the “long game, not the immediate future.”