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Army Corps: No charge for Sakakawea irrigation water

FARGO -- North Dakota farmers won't have to pay for water pumped from Lake Sakakawea to irrigate their fields, federal officials have decided.

The Army Corps of Engineers concluded it does not have the authority to charge for water used for irrigation from any of the six Missouri River reservoirs, said Larry Janis, a water supply manager for the corps in Omaha.

Fifty-five irrigators have permits to use water from Lake Sakakawea, figures from the North Dakota State Water Commission show. Three have permits up for renewal and have applications pending with the corps.

The action leaves undecided, however, whether the government will impose a fee for industrial or municipal water use from Lake Sakakawea -- a proposal that has prompted angry criticism from North Dakota officials.

The proposal to charge a "storage fee" for Lake Sakakawea water surfaced last year. North Dakota officials, tribal leaders and water users have been outspoken in opposing any charge.

The dispute is playing out at a time when water is in high demand in western North Dakota because of rapid oil and gas development. Water and chemicals are injected under high pressure to free oil from shale deposits deep underground.

North Dakota argues that the water that would be used for agricultural, municipal and industrial needs would come from the Missouri River's natural flows, not from water impounded by Garrison Dam.

The state has a legal right to the river's natural flows, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, Gov. Jack Dalrymple, and Todd Sando, the state engineer, have argued.

A decision about whether the government can charge municipal, domestic and industrial users for Lake Sakakawea water is before Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works.

"I can't say whether we agree or disagree with anything, but we did listen" to criticisms of the proposal to charge for water, Janis said. Those comments, along with the corps' draft report, will be considered before a decision is made.

No timetable has been set for a decision, he said.

A high-level lawyer for the corps based in Washington, D.C., visited North Dakota and South Dakota in January so he could see Lake Sakakawea and Lake Oahe.

Those reservoirs are much larger than reservoirs in the southeastern United States that established the precedent of a water storage fee for the corps as a means to conserve water.

Stenehjem and Sando have said the effort to transfer that policy to the Missouri River reservoirs is a "one size fits all" approach that doesn't work.

Stenehjem has said North Dakota will go to court if it has to protect the state's rights to use Missouri River water.

North Dakota, state officials often point out, sacrificed 550,000 acres for Sakakawea and Oahe, and have been promised water use in


Springer is a reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.