ENVIRONMENT / THE MISSOURI RIVER : In the Midwest, the Dam Fight Is Still Unresolved : Southern portion of the basin has won a court battle over the allocation of water--at the expense of the parched northern areas.


The mighty Missouri is full and flowing in its southern reaches, thanks to Mother Nature and the federal courts.

While the northern portions of the Missouri basin--especially North and South Dakota--are hard hit by drought, the southern portions through Kansas and Missouri now have plenty of water for both irrigation and navigation.

Storms and drought are unpredictable factors in that equation. But as a recent series of court decisions revealed, the rising demand for Missouri River water has reached a critical juncture.

The losers this summer will be the walleye and northern pike, and the recreational industries of the Dakotas. In the near future, it could be barge operators and power plants in Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri and, possibly, even the municipal water systems of Kansas City and St. Louis.

At issue is how the Army Corps of Engineers operates six dams along the Missouri. The Corps built the dams for flood control after World War II, and frequently opens the gates in one or more dams in late spring to assure adequate flow for power generation and barge traffic in the southern part of the basin.

This spring North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana, alarmed at low water levels upstream and the bare bones look of Lake Oahe on the Dakotas' border, sued to stop the release. A U.S. District judge in BismarckD. ordered the Corps not to lower the level of Lake Oahe before June 1, by which time the walleye fish spawn there would be over.

But an appeal by the Corps led to a quick reversal, and last week a three-judge panel of the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Paul, Minn., permanently blocked the lower court order restricting the river's flow.

The upstream states decided not to carry the case to the Supreme Court because the spawning season will be over by the time the appeal is heard. But the long-term argument is now set: When there isn't enough water to go around, should the dams be operated primarily to benefit downstream or upstream users?

South Dakota Gov. George S. Mickelson said the state will lose 3% of its fish spawn for each day of increased water flow from Lake Oahe. "This is our livelihood getting sucked down that river," he said.

"We don't live in wealthy states," argued former South Dakota Gov. William Janklow, the lawyer for the upstream states. "We have very limited economic opportunities available to us."

The six upstream reservoirs have a combined storage capacity equal to about three years' flow of the Missouri at Sioux City, Iowa. All that water has proved an irresistible temptation to people in the basin with agendas of their own. In 1958, before the Oahe Dam was even completed, public power groups in South Dakota complained that water releases for navigation were cutting the hydroelectric potential of the reservoirs. Downriver states fought back and preserved their rights.

New uses for the river's water are still being dreamed up. In the early 80s water from the lake in South Dakota was to be used in a coal slurry pipeline to Wyoming mines. That never reached fruition. Another scheme would have pumped river water to replenish the Ogalala aquifer in western Kansas.

Competing claims on the river's water aren't likely to die down soon. A recent study on global warming predicted that the most productive cropland in the United States will shift to the north, including the upper plains. To derive good yields, however, that zone must be irrigated. The only source of water there will be what can be coerced from the Missouri River.

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