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McCaskill seeks to protect Missouri River waters from thirsty Dakotas

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 8, 2009 -  U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., has a message to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar:

Keep the Missouri River's water for Missouri (and Nebraska and Minnesota), and curb that seemingly unquenchable thirst from North and South Dakota for more.

McCaskill sent a letter Wednesday to Salazar, in which she asked him "to reject a proposal that would divert water from the Upper Missouri River and potentially cause navigation and water supply problems for the state of Missouri."

In a statement, her staff said that "Reduced water levels would negatively impact Missourians’ access to water for drinking, navigation, shipping and power generation."

They also noted that "The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) estimates that other solutions would provide the same benefit, but cost at least $200 million less than the proposed project."

The battle between the Dakotas and the downriver states, notably Missouri, has gone on for decades. Missouri's bipartisan delegation, backed by barge interests and environmentalists, have long fought against various upriver proposals to dam or divert some of the Missouri's precious cargo of water.

McCaskill recently announced she was blocking a proposal that called for $25-million study of the Missouri River, saying such an examination was unnecessary since such a study was completed just four years ago by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

(Click here to read a detailed account by Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau Chief Bill Lambrecht, who has followed this water fight for decades.)

Here's the text of her letter to the secretary, who's also the former senator from Colorado:

Dear Secretary Salazar,

You may be aware of serious concerns that I and other members of the Missouri Congressional delegation have about a proposal being considered by the Department of the Interior to divert water out of the Upper Missouri River. I write to urge you to reject the troubling and problematic proposal.

The Dakota Water Resources Act of 2000 authorized the Red River Valley Water Supply Project, intended ensure the water quality and water quantity needs of the Red River Valley .  In 2007, the Bureau of Reclamation completed its analysis of six proposals for the project, and announced that its preferred alternative of achieving the aims set out in the Act was to divert water from the Upper Missouri River to the Red River Valley. Your predecessor, Secretary Kempthorne, declined to sign the Record of Decision that would have made the proposal final. It is my understanding that you are now considering whether to sign the Record of Decision.

The proposal is ill-advised for many reasons. According to the Office of Management and Budget, it would cost over $200 million more than an in-basin alternative, without producing any additional benefits.The State of Minnesota and the Government of Canada fear that the project could introduce invasive species into the Red River and Hudson basin.

The diversion would invite conflict about water usage between the states in the Red River and Missouri River basins.\ It could also jeopardize efforts, on which the US Fish and Wildlife Service has already spent millions of dollars, to preserve habitat for endangered species in Missouri and Nebraska. Lastly, but certainly not least, it could lower water levels on the Missouri River. 

That would reduce access to water for users in the State of Missouri , by far the largest state in the basin. Users in Missouri rely on the river for drinking water, navigation, shipping, and efficient power generation, as well as to address the effects of hard droughts just like those the citizens of North Dakota occasionally experience. 

I do not begrudge the people of North Dakota a reliable water supply. However, all of the proposal’s potential costs, benefits, and impacts need to be thoroughly evaluated.  I am convinced that an alternative can be found with fewer costs to the taxpayer and fewer adverse impacts to other stakeholders on the Missouri River. I hope you will reject the proposal to divert water from the Missouri and work to implement a better solution.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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