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ND awaits detailed proposal on fee for Lake Sakakawea, Lake Oahe water

FARGO -- North Dakota water officials still are waiting to see details of a federal proposal they vigorously oppose -- a so-called storage fee for water drawn from Lake Sakakawea or Lake Oahe.

The proposal by the Army Corps of Engineers first was floated in 2010, but the agency has yet to release the rules for implementation.

State and tribal officials in North Dakota and South Dakota have adamantly fought the idea, and are backed by the Western States Water Council, Western Governors Association and Missouri River Organization of States and Tribes.

A meeting with corps officials last week in Deadwood, S.D., failed to clarify the government's position, but conveyed the states' and tribes' concerns, said Michelle Klose, North Dakota's assistant state engineer.

"I think that message did get across in Deadwood," she said.

The dispute is hampering the ability of oil service companies to draw water from Lake Sakakawea, located on the Missouri River in the heart of the booming Bakken Formation.

Corps officials shed no new light on what proposed rules they will release, according Klose and others who attended the meeting.

"We are uncertain of the status of the proposed rule change," said Tony Willardson, executive director of the Western States Water Council.

"It was informative," he said. "Whether or not it changed anything, I don't know."

It was not even clear whether the proposed rules remain before the assistant Army secretary who oversees the corps, or whether it has been sent to the Office of Management and Budget, Willardson said.

Carlee Brown, a policy manager for the Western Governors Association, said water management is a critical issue and a proper role for states.

"Water belongs to the states," which are granted exclusive rights under the Constitution, she said. "We just want to make sure that state primacy is preserved in any corps practices."

North Dakota and other Missouri River Basin states contend that states are entitled to natural flows along the Missouri River, and that natural flows are ample enough for intended uses.

In that view, the reservoirs, including Lake Sakakawea and Lake Oahe, "sit on top of the river" at places, Willardson said.

"They're trying to claim these as project waters," Klose said, referring to reservoir water. "It is disturbing to us. That's water that would be available to us without the dams."

Although no agreement was reached, and lots of questions remain, Klose thought the meeting was helpful in sending a united message to Washington from the Missouri River Basin and Western states and tribes.

North Dakota wants to do everything it can to resolve the dispute, Klose said, but state officials have said it will go to court if necessary to protect its rights to Missouri River water.

Corps officials could not be reached for comment.