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Levels on the rise

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Levels on the rise
Dickinson North Dakota 1815 1st Street West 58602

Things are looking better than expected at two of North Dakota's premiere fisheries.

Both Lake Sakakawea and Lake Oahe, south of Bismarck, have exceeded U.S. Army Corp of Engineers' (USACOE) projections for the end of June, and the month is only half over.

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"It's hard to predict Mother Nature, but as long as we continue to have good weather patterns up here it is something we could see going forward," Scott Gangl, fisheries management section leader for the Game and Fish said. "It's kind of a big balancing game that the Corps of Engineers has to play."

At the beginning of June, USACOE projections put Sakakawea at 1,814.8 meters above sea level. As of June 17, it sat at 1,815.4. Oahe projections put it at 1,587.8 at the end of June. As of June 17 it stood at 1,590.6.

Last year at this time Sakakawea sat at 1,816.2 and Oahe sat at 1,582.7.

Greg Power, Game and Fish Fisheries Division chief, and Gangl agreed on the reasons behind the higher water levels in the Missouri River basis and pointed to three factors; snow pack, rainfall and an abundance of water in the lower Missouri River system.

First of all, the snow pack in the Rocky Mountains was better and came later than originally expected.

One USACOE official said the amount of snow pack remaining in the mountains this late in the year can only mean good things for the reservoirs it will feed.

"It was at about 110 percent of normal at the peak and it's actually come off late," Larry Cieslik, chief of the Missouri River Basin Water Management Division for the USACOE said. "Which is good because you usually get more run off when that's the case."

As of June 9, the snow pack remaining in the reach above Fort Peck Dam was at 53 percent; from Fort Peck to Garrison, which is primarily located in the Yellowstone River basin, the snow pack stood at 61 percent, according to USACOE numbers.

Normally at this time of year, the snow pack averages out to 25 percent remaining, according to information gathered from the USACOE.

However, according to Cieslik, without steady spring rainfall in eastern Montana, the snow pack wouldn't have impacted North Dakota water levels much at all.

"The rains in Montana have helped quite a bit," Cieslik said, pointing to dry conditions throughout eastern Montana in early 2008. He said without the rain, the Montana soil would have sucked up much of the water that now runs off from the snow pack.

"You don't need to have rain over Lake Sakakawea for Sakakawea to go up, that's for sure," Power said. "You can have a localized drought and still do OK if there's a good mountain snow pack like we had this year. ...Montana had some serious late season snows and rains and that helped."

While much of southwestern and central North Dakota are currently experiencing drought conditions, North Dakota's neighbors to the west and the east have had healthy amounts of rainfall.

South Dakota rainstorms have saturated the ground in the state, leading to full waterways and a cut down in releases throughout the Missouri River Basin.

Currently, Garrison Dam is releasing 15,000 cubic feet of water per second according to the USACOE. They are averaging 12,000 cfs throughout the Missouri River Basin. In an average year they would be at 22,000-25,000 cfs, a noticeable difference.

The ratcheting down of downstream outflows have helped raise the water levels of Sakakawea and Oahe, but especially Oahe, according to Power.

"Right now, actually, Lake Oahe is the one that's really up," Power said. "There's going to be tremendous forage produced this year."

The potential forage growth will help with the fishing situation that several anglers have complained about this year.

Power said the Game and Fish has warned anglers that if the water situation remained low that it could potentially affect forage growth and therefore affect fishing opportunities, but it appears things may be on the rebound.

"Hopefully we'll see a rebound in water levels and then we'll see a rebound in the fishing qualities," Power said. "We've got a long ways to go, but there's certainly an upside. ...Let's keep out fingers crossed; again, it's going the right way."

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