Sponsored By
An organization or individual has paid for the creation of this work but did not approve or review it.



Couple's dream turning to dust

BEAVER BAY, N.D. - Randy Bosch stood on a hill overlooking a deserted cove once teeming with anglers launching their boats into one of the best walleye lakes in the country.

BEAVER BAY, N.D. - Randy Bosch stood on a hill overlooking a deserted cove once teeming with anglers launching their boats into one of the best walleye lakes in the country.

On that very hill, Bosch and his wife once planned on building their retirement home - a dream that evaporated as the bay on Lake Oahe dried up from a drought now in its sixth year.

But, in the view of many in these parched parts, nature isn't the only culprit responsible for drawing down one of North America's most renowned fishing waters.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency that manages six dams on the upper Missouri River, has been criticized for what some call its mismanagement of the river.

Critics argue the corps has let too much water flow to downstream states in recent years, largely to keep barges floating in places like Missouri.


"The corps should have started the drought conservation way before they did," Bosch said. "So far, Missouri hasn't had to share in any of the pain."

Although the corps last year adopted a more flexible operating plan for the dams, allowing them to hold back more water in times of crisis, the upper Missouri has been devastated.

In North Dakota, Lake Sakakawea and Lake Oahe dropped to record lows, though both have crept up from normal-to-heavy rains this spring.

Bosch and his wife, Nancy, struggle to keep their resort, Bosch's Bayside, afloat in the midst of the prolonged drought.

A native of Linton, 13 miles east of his resort, Bosch returned seven years ago after working as an estimator and commercial construction manager in the Twin Cities, where he gave up a six-figure salary to pursue his dream as a resort owner.

"We're still supported by the local folks, but they're not enough to survive," says Bosch. "We miss those out-of-state, out-of-town people. They just don't come. Who can blame them?"

Lake Oahe, which normally extends 231 miles, from just north of Pierre, S.D., almost to Bismarck, now ends at about the state line, where it has returned to its old river channel. Scores of inlets like Beaver Bay are muddy flats filling with weeds.

Top corps officials recently visited North Dakota and South Dakota to give assurances that they will do everything possible to maintain drinking water supplies for communities along Lake Sakakawea and Lake Oahe.


Stewart Cook, the corps' point man in monitoring the Missouri, said the agency has changed its philosophy of managing the river's flow, with a high priority on upstream conservation.

"We're taking a more conservative approach," Cook said. "We're trying to take into account the severity of the drought."

To conserve water, the corps expects to shorten the barge season by 61 days - the most ever - and expects to conserve 500,000 more acre-feet of water in the three upstream reservoirs than last year, when the barge season was trimmed 47 days.

The moves are allowed under greater flexibility granted the corps in a new "master manual" that was revised last year after 15 years of heated debate and review - a process triggered by the devastating drought of the late 1980s.

If upstream water storage, now totaling 37.6 million acre feet, drops to 31 million acre feet by March 15, the corps will hold back water without regard to disrupting barge traffic.

North Dakota officials complain that upstream recreation interests have been sacrificed for a downstream barge industry that is small and getting smaller. For example, a terminal in Sioux City, Iowa, averaged 160 barges a year in the 1990s, a number that has slipped below 100 in recent years.

Recreation along the river, valued several years ago at $84.7 million, is more than 10 times greater than the $7 million annual barge industry, according to a report by the National Academy of Sciences.

The high priority given to barge shipping is particularly galling to upper basin states like North Dakota, which sacrificed 550,000 acres, much of it prime river bottomland, for reservoirs created in the 1950s and 1960s to control flooding and to generate hydropower.


The biggest flood control benefits have gone to the downstream states, including Iowa, Kansas and Missouri, where cities were swept by killer floods in 1943.

Chad Smith of American Rivers, an environmental advocacy group, said the low reservoir levels and the prolonged drought demonstrate that even the revised master manual is failing to adequately balance the competing needs along the river.

"We're going to have to have other ways of doing it," Smith said. "Clearly the master manual isn't doing it."

"It may be that Congress needs to step in," he added, noting water supplies in several reservation communities in the Dakotas are threatened by historically low lake levels. "I think we're at the point where we have to get to that. This drought is very severe and the impacts are very real."

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., an outspoken critic of the corps, would be happy to rewrite the flood control act. But the power balance in Washington tilts against the upper basin states.

"During the campaign President Bush went to Missouri and said 'I'm with you.,' " Dorgan said. "At the moment, the corps still provides too much weight to barge traffic."

Dorgan calls the threshold to halt releases needed to float barges downstream "absurd," noting they've never fallen to that level, even at the historic lows of the last two years.

But if the threshold is met, he said, those in Missouri will finally feel the severity of the drought. No water will be available because of years of mismanagement.


"Missouri has taken dead aim at its feet with a big shotgun and shot its toes off," Dorgan said.

For Bosch, the corps' willingness to shorten the navigation season by holding back more water in the upstream reservoirs is too little, too late.

"I'm as bad as it's going to get here," he added. "Quite frankly, I don't think I'm going to be here in a year."

The Bosches put hundreds of thousands of dollars from their retirement savings into their resort, which includes a bait shop and convenience store, a restaurant and a park for recreational vehicles to camp.

"We used to be so busy here," Bosch said, opening the door to his empty restaurant, now closed Mondays and Tuesdays because of the loss of customers. "We had standing room only."

The year they established Bosch's Bayside, 1998, literally was a high-water mark. Every year since then the lake has dropped and, with it, the viability of their business.

Beaver Bay, a cove once teeming with fishermen, has been dry for two years. This spring, no boats could dock, and the picnic area on shore is often empty.

"This park was jam-packed on the weekends," Bosch said. Campers had to claim a spot on Thursdays - Wednesdays before holidays - for weekend use.


This week, Wednesday and Thursday, the corps will hold a meeting in Bismarck to discuss management of the "spring rise" - releases timed to mimic high river levels, a maneuver to benefit endangered pallid sturgeon.

Bosch pointed to the Beaver Bay boat ramp, now stranded and surrounded by weeds. "This is where the corps should have its meetings," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

What To Read Next
Get Local


Must Reads