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Garrison Dam, Day 3: River tug of war

A submersible camera sent to explore the murky depths of Garrison Dam several weeks ago surprised people by what it found lurking along the bottom: nothing much.

A submersible camera sent to explore the murky depths of Garrison Dam several weeks ago surprised people by what it found lurking along the bottom: nothing much.

"There was maybe a carp or two here and there," said Bruce Bentz, operations foreman at Garrison Dam. "The concrete looked like the day it was put in there. It was unbelievable."

Dam officials had expected to find tangles of sunken logs and muck, but found only a little tree bark and some iron scraps left behind when the dam was built 50 years ago.

But miles upstream on the Missouri River at Williston, N.D., the state of the river channel is much less pristine.

There, the city and landowners find themselves mired in a long, losing struggle with a ton of mud deposited by a river slowed by Garrison Dam, whose Lake Sakakawea extends


178 miles upriver.

"We experience all the effects of the silt that backs up behind that dam," said engineer Monte Meiers, Williston's director of public works. "It's like a swamp out there. There is no lake or river left here. It's just a delta."

During the 1980s, Williston had to install a costly new water intake to ensure a reliable supply of drinking water because the old intake was covered by a sandbar, Meiers said.

Now the city is preparing to install a new water line to replace an old line that is submerged under a swamp caused by the buildup of sediment, interfering with future maintenance.

"It takes an act of Congress to get some assistance," Meiers said. Half the cost will be paid by a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency -- not the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates Garrison and the other five dams along the Missouri.

Drought adds to fight

The problems like those experienced by Williston are exacerbated, officials in North Dakota and elsewhere along the upper Missouri complain, by a powerful interest group hundreds of miles downstream: the barge industry.

For 50 years, the corps has operated the six dams under a management plan that gives a higher priority to the barge industry than to the river's environmental health. Barges navigate the lower Missouri through Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri.


As a result, critics say, the Missouri River, the nation's longest, has become the longest chain of river reservoirs, and an ecological and cultural disaster.

Just last week, in the latest legal skirmishes in a thicket of nine pending lawsuits over management of the dams, a federal appeals court decided that the corps erred in maintaining higher reservoir levels in North Dakota and South Dakota.

The decision by a panel of judges, which also upheld a Nebraska case, concluded that the corps should follow its master plan to maintain flows for barge traffic from Sioux City, Iowa, to St. Louis.

The corps' master manual ranks recreation and wildlife concerns dead last among its priorities, behind flood control, irrigation and upstream beneficial uses, downstream water supply, navigation and hydropower.

Also last week, in a separate lawsuit, North Dakota argued its case for an injunction requiring the corps to maintain minimum Lake Sakakawea levels to support its fish hatchery.

The prolonged Western drought, which has resulted in plunging reservoir levels, has intensified the legal battles up and down the river.

American Rivers, a river advocacy group, has long listed the Missouri as one of the nation's most endangered waterways. Similarly, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has listed the Missouri River as one of the 11 most endangered historic places in America.

The river valley was for centuries home to villages of American Indians, and 1,100 settlement or burial sites are eligible or listed on the National Register of Historic Places -- some now buried by the huge reservoirs.


Draw-downs of reservoirs recently exposed human remains in ancient burial grounds on two reservations in South Dakota, including Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, prompting the tribes to obtain a restraining order against the corps.

North Dakota has gone to court to try to force the corps to manage the six dams in a way that would help maintain important fish habitat.

The legal arguments of North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana largely overlap with those of environmental groups, which are suing to try to get the corps to follow the advice of leading scientists by trying to mimic natural river flows.

A group of nine environmental groups led by American Rivers is suing the corps, contending its operating plan for the Missouri River dams violates the Endangered Species Act. At a court hearing in Washington at the end of this month, the environmentalists will ask a federal judge to grant a preliminary injunction.

"We're asking for river-friendly operation this summer," said American Rivers spokesman Eric Eckl.

Step toward old river

To mimic the river's natural rhythms, environmental advocates are calling for the release of more water in the spring and less water in the summer in normal precipitation years.

"It's not a return to the river of Lewis and Clark, but it's a couple of steps in that direction," Eckl said.


In much the same way as the massive irrigation once envisioned by federal dam builders never materialized in upstream states like North Dakota, the huge barge industry that once was forecast for the downstream states hasn't happened.

A report last year by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that deterioration of the Missouri River ecosystem will continue unless the natural rise and fall of seasonal water flows is at least partly restored.

The panel of scientists viewed navigation as holding "the smallest of benefits among authorized purposes of the dam and reservoir project." Last year, according to American Rivers, economic benefits of barge navigation were estimated at $6.9 million -- less than the corps spends to maintain the shipping channel.

By contrast, the economic benefits of recreation and tourism dwarf barge traffic, generating an estimated $85 million for the navigational reach of the river every year. And, according to American Rivers, recreation along the unchanneled upper Mississippi is worth $1 billion every year to that region, including Minnesota.

However, in places like Williston, river management has meant it is impossible to sustain the significant recreation development the corps predicted, Meiers said.

"The recreational aspect that they said we'd get has been marginal," he said. "Of course, the potential is huge," if dam flows changed to help upstream fish and wildlife habitat.

Lobbies, policy clash

Three years ago the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a biological evaluation on Missouri River management requiring the corps to alter its operations this year and to recreate more natural flows to save endangered species, including the pallid sturgeon, piping plover and least tern.


Many species of fish and waterfowl would also benefit by more natural river management practices.

"What's good for the tern is good for the mallard, and what's good for the pallid sturgeon is good for the walleye," Eckl said.

In spite of the huge environmental costs and the meager economic benefits of operating the dams to maintain downstream barge traffic, the shipping and agricultural industries have political clout in Washington.

"The situation is ensnared in politics," Eckl said. "The corps is under a lot of pressure, in their defense."

The ongoing struggle, now half a century old, of trying to balance the myriad environmental and economic interests along the Missouri illustrates how difficult the task can be.

It also demonstrates how influential interests can mold public policy in ways that don't meet the public interest, Eckl says.

"It is somewhat of a testimonial of the grip that certain public interests have over public policy."

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

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