Mo. River states press for drought action

Governors plan to meet tomorrow in S. Dakota

February 06, 2005|By ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

WASHINGTON - States along the Missouri River are suffering their worst drought in decades and pressing the Army Corps of Engineers to hold more river water in Montana and the Dakotas this year and restrict flows downstream.

At a summit meeting in South Dakota tomorrow, Western governors hope to win backing for a plan that they say could prevent "draconian" measures a year from now, including closing the Missouri to barge navigation.

But the upstream quest for water will prove difficult, given the long-running war over the increasingly scarce river water used by Missourians for drinking, power production and barge navigation. And late confusion arose over who would show up for tomorrow's meeting.

Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt's office said Friday he won't be joining other governors in Sioux Falls and that Blunt had never committed to attending. South Dakota officials insist that Blunt's office confirmed last month that Missouri's new governor would take part and included him in an announcement last week about the gathering.

At least half of the basin's eight governors planned to attend, along with officials from the corps and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Western states along the Missouri River are entering their fifth year of a drought that has imperiled upstream water supplies for drinking, recreation and irrigation. South Dakota's Lake Oahe, the Missouri River's largest impoundment, is 28 feet below normal.

With mountain snow pack that brings runoff 68 percent of normal this winter and long-range forecasts predicting little change, South Dakota's Gov. Mike Rounds is looking to secure more water immediately and possibly head off harsh measures next year.

The corps' new master manual, approved last year after more than a decade of wrangling between states, includes a conservation plan for extreme drought. If the water in Missouri River reservoirs in the Dakotas and Montana drops to 31 million acre-feet by March 1, the corps must automatically impose emergency provisions that close the river to barge traffic for the rest of this year.

Though the emergency trigger is not likely to be reached this year (reservoir storage hit 35 million last week), it could well be reached a year from now.

So upstream governors are hoping to persuade their downstream counterparts to accept lower water levels this year rather than risk more severe measures in 2006.

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