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Garrison Dam, Day 3: Tortured past, troubled present

Jerry Schaack and his crews battle mud slides, kill weeds, plow roads, water ducks and tend a serpentine swimming pool inhabited by some maverick perch.

Jerry Schaack and his crews battle mud slides, kill weeds, plow roads, water ducks and tend a serpentine swimming pool inhabited by some maverick perch.

But the man-made canals they maintain really were designed for another purpose: to make 250,000 acres of North Dakota prairie bloom with irrigated crops.

Schaack is the top engineer for a district of 28 counties that joined forces to operate the Garrison Diversion Project, a system of canals intended to carry water from the Missouri River east to areas including the Red River Valley.


The McClusky Canal, which takes water from Garrison Dam's Lake Sakakawea, stops abruptly after 74 miles. The next stretch, the New Rockford Canal, has no water source, and no outlet, but snakes along for 44 miles, filling with rain runoff.


In between the two canals -- a gap of about 20 miles -- is the Lone Tree Wildlife Management Area, 33,500 acres of grasslands, wetlands, lakes and creeks that provide bountiful natural habitat.

So, what does the water from those 118 miles of canals do? Mostly, it benefits fish and waterfowl. Little or none goes to irrigation or municipal and industrial uses.

Nonetheless, Schaack and his two crews of almost 20 employees continue to maintain the canals because they still might be used someday to deliver water to cities, towns and farms.

The annual cost: about $3.5 million. Roughly half that sum goes to maintaining and operating the canals themselves, Schaack said, with the rest paying for upkeep of associated features, including 250 miles of roads and rights of way.

Over the years, workers repeatedly have had to patch dirt slides along the sloped canal walls, usually caused by seeping groundwater, and occasionally siphon water to prevent damage to plastic linings.

"It's still not clear what the total benefit of the canals will be," he said. "But we're maintaining them to some degree in case they're used someday. It would have been much better if it would have progressed and become a project, but that's not what happened."

So far, Garrison Diversion has received more than $614 million in federal appropriations -- making it "the granddaddy of wasteful water projects" in the view of its environmental critics.

The long saga of Garrison Diversion is riddled with decades of intrigues and battles, but it might be summarized as awkwardly straddling two conflicting eras: the decline of big water projects followed by the rise of environmental concerns.


As the public works payoff for huge land sacrifices the state made in construction of Garrison Dam, the diversion project came at the tail end of big western water projects. As such, funding and public support were waning as construction on the diversion began in 1968.

Over the years, questions about the irrigation project's economic feasibility and steep environmental costs mounted steadily. Also, Canada strenuously objected -- and continues to object -- to transfers of water from the Missouri to the Red River watershed, fearing contamination by foreign species.

The accumulation of those questions and objections became too great, and construction on the canals was halted in 1984. Since then, Garrison Diversion has metamorphosed into a project that stresses delivery of municipal and industrial water supply, not irrigation.

Thus, irrigation authorization dwindled three years ago to 70,360 acres, a fraction of the 250,000 authorized in 1965 and miniscule compared to the 1,007,000 acres originally envisioned when Garrison Dam was authorized in 1944.

So far, however, no federal funding exists for that irrigation. For many, the long-held dream of massive irrigation from Garrison has evaporated.

"It's followed a tortuous path, that's for sure," Schaack said. "It's been a tough struggle."

An unending battle

Today, the diversion canals remain an alternative, along with several pipeline options, now under review for supplying water to Fargo and other communities in the Red River Valley.


Engineering and environmental studies, bedeviled by delays, are due in 2005. Besides the possibility of diverting Missouri River water, the studies also must weigh the feasibility of finding adequate water within the Red River basin in North Dakota and Minnesota.

Meanwhile, securing money for Garrison and related North Dakota water projects remains an unending battle in Washington. Once again, the hurdles are high.

President Bush's budget request for the federal 2004 budget slices funding for Garrison by more than $11 million from the current budget's $28.5 million. It also would lop $10 million from other projects funded under the Dakota Water Resources Act, which continues authorization for Garrison.

If sustained by Congress, the Bush budget would provide essentially no money for North Dakota rural water projects, said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.

"It's a profound disappointment to me," Dorgan said. "These are promises made by the federal government, and they ought to be kept by the federal government."

Dorgan and Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., were at the center of a compromise struck three years ago with foes of Garrison Diversion, which resulted in approval of the Dakota Water Resources Act.

The deal acknowledges the need to compensate the state for sacrifices made for Garrison Dam -- but requires congressional approval if studies determine diverting Missouri River water is the best way to meet Red River Valley water needs.

That concession was the price North Dakota had to pay, officials say, to keep alive the authorization for major water development funding owed the state as a result of Garrison Dam.


The act authorizes $200 million to address water needs in the Red River Valley.

"I am confident we will get the money that's been authorized," Conrad said. "The thing that is in doubt is how the water needs of eastern North Dakota will be met."

Conrad doubts there's a workable alternative to diverting water from the Missouri, most likely via a pipeline, to the Red River basin. A pipeline could connect to a water treatment plant to avoid transfer of fishes, plants and diseases.

The objection from states like Missouri, however, is over water rights -- a fight that will only intensify as competing demands for water increase as population grows in metropolitan centers like Omaha, Neb., and Kansas City and St. Louis in Missouri.

"They want what is ours," Conrad said.

'Memories are short'

Getting Missouri River water to Fargo, where the Red River slowed to a trickle during severe droughts in the 1930s and in 1988, will remain a steep climb, politically and financially. One preliminary estimate four years ago pegged the cost of a pipeline at $500 million.

However, since studies still aren't complete, officials shy away from estimating the price tag, except to acknowledge that it will be immense. If water is delivered, users likely will have to repay at least part of the cost.


Some argue that even complete funding of the $631.5 million now authorized for North Dakota water projects will never fully compensate the state for the sacrifices it made to control Missouri River flooding, including the loss of 569,000 acres of land.

"In a fundamental way North Dakota has been cheated," Conrad said. "North Dakota has been made promises that never are going to be kept."

Now that a half-century has passed since Garrison Dam's dedication, people elsewhere are unaware of the price paid by North Dakota, said historian Brian Keith Russell, who studied the project for a history master's thesis at the University of North Dakota.

He now lives in southern Illinois near St. Louis, where he is a war planner for the Air Force and teaches history at a local college.

People around St. Louis don't seem to acknowledge or appreciate the sacrifices made upstream to protect them from destructive flooding, Russell said.

In that sense, President Eisenhower's prediction 50 years ago, when he dedicated Garrison Dam, proved to be prophetic: People would someday take the accomplishments of projects like Garrison for granted.

"Memories," the historian said, "are sometimes short."

Dorgan, who has been immersed in Garrison authorization and funding battles for 22 years in the House and Senate, isn't sure whether he'll ever be able to drink a glass of water in Fargo diverted, by canal or pipeline, from the Missouri River.


"I hope so," he said.

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

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