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US Senate votes to ban fees for Missouri River water

FARGO -- A proposal to charge for water in Missouri River reservoirs would be banned under legislation passed Wednesday by the U.S. Senate.

The States' Water Rights Act, sponsored by Sens. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and John Thune, R-S.D., easily passed the Senate in a voice vote.

If similar legislation passes in the House, it would end a dispute that has simmered for several years, drawing intense criticism from state officials and water users in North Dakota and other upper Missouri River states.

The Army Corps of Engineers moved in 2010 to implement what it calls a "storage" fee for surplus water in Missouri River reservoirs, including Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota and Lake Oahe, which is in North Dakota and South Dakota.

Officials in North Dakota and South Dakota argued that they have a right to water that naturally flows with the Missouri River, making it unnecessary to draw water stored by the reservoirs created by dams, including Garrison Dam in North Dakota.

North Dakota, which sacrificed 550,000 acres to Lake Sakakawea and Lake Oahe, argues that it is authorized to use Missouri River water under the provisions of the 1944 Flood Control Act and the 1986 Garrison Reformulation Act.

"North Dakota has 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," Hoeven said.

He added: "We never would have accepted charges for this proposed fee. This solves that problem," sparing the upper basin states from costly and protracted litigation.

"It's definitely a step in the right direction," said Pat Fridgen, planning director for the North Dakota State Water Commission, adding that similar action will be needed in the House.

The proposed water fee has caused a "holdup" in obtaining easements to draw water from the reservoirs, he said. Municipal, industrial, agricultural and recreational water users all would be affected by fees, officials said.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., was a co-sponsor of the act, part of the Water Resources Development Act.