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Farrell to Army Corps: ‘Butt out’: North Dakota officials question agency practices

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The feud over who controls access to Missouri River water in the state flared up at the North Dakota Reclamation Conference on Tuesday the Astoria Hotel & Suites.

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Daniel Farrell, hydrologist manager for the North Dakota State Water Commission, said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should butt out of the state’s water regulation practices.

“When this whole fracking thing started when the Bakken was explored in 2005, the first thing we said was that we do not want to mine our aquifers,” Farrell said. “You’ve got the Missouri River and Lake Sakakawea cutting right through the dead center of the Bakken mature field. There are 24.3 million acre feet of water in that Missouri River system right now stored. We used 12,000 acre feet in 2012 for fracking. That’s a quarter of an inch off that cotton-pickin’ lake.”

Farrell’s comments were made in response to a question from an audience member following his talk titled “Water Appropriation and Management in North Dakota.”

As industrial demand for water picked up in western North Dakota following the emergence of the Bakken shale play late last decade, the Corps began to block off access to Missouri River water during the spring of 2010.

What followed was an argument from state leaders that North Dakota had a legal right to the water in the river and its six main reservoirs, including Lake Sakakawea.

Amid a series of reports, including an environmental assessment, the corps eventually agreed to allow for about 100,000 acre feet of water to be used for various purposes, including industrial uses. When reached Tuesday, Army spokesperson Eileen Williamson said the corps reserves the right to charge for the water, though it currently does not do so.

“We encouraged people to develop around the Missouri River and the corps said ‘absolutely not,’” Farrell said. “They said they own the property around it and wouldn’t give any permits to cross their land and access that water until they did a surplus water study, which would take seven years. The state engineer said (no). The corps and the state engineer’s office came to a formal agreement in that they would allow for 100,000 acre feet of water to be processed through.”

Pointing out that far more water is applied in North Dakota for agricultural irrigation purposes than for any other use, Farrell said the timing of the corps’ decision to restrict — or at least wield the power to permit — water from the river didn’t do the state any favors as the Bakken continued to grow.

“Because they never really set up how much water gets set for the nine authorized uses back in 1953, the Corps said, ‘We have to do this now,’” Farrell said. “Well, why now? You’re stopping us from using this water for a beneficial use, for the benefit of the people of North Dakota. They said,’This is what we do back east.’” Well, guess what, folks, we ain’t back east.”

Farrell said the corps is processing permits for water from Lake Sakakawea.

“We have three (permits) that have been processed and there are nine more to go from the original group,” Farrell said. “The corps is trying to limit some permit applications to a 25-mile radius. But, again, we’re calling that horse hockey because we’re letting the free market determine what’s best for the state of North Dakota.”

The Water Resources Development Act of 2013 — which is in conference committee after passing both the U.S. House and Senate — includes an amendment authored by Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., which bars the Corps from charging a surplus water fee for access to the Missouri River reservoirs.

In a release sent Feb. 18 by his office, Hoeven stated that the rights to water in the reservoirs belong to the citizens of North Dakota.

“It is important that we bar the federal government from charging us for water that historically, legally and ethically belongs to the citizens and tribes of North Dakota,” Hoeven stated. “We have fought long and hard to preserve the integrity of the Missouri River and the rights of our people to use it to support their homes and their livelihoods.”

In an email sent Tuesday, Southwest Water Authority CEO Mary Massad stated that her organization has applied for an industrial use permit from the corps, but that it has been tied up.

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Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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