Guest Commentary: Request for additional Missouri River releases threatens S.D. interests

By Sen. John Thune

It has been a hot, dry year in South Dakota. The drought-stricken landscape and the loss of crops, hay, and pastures have made this a challenging year for farmers, ranchers, and communities across South Dakota. Even certain areas of the state that experienced excess rainfall in 2011 suffered from lower than normal rainfall this year.

The drought-induced low water levels of the Missouri mean that less water is available to be released from the Missouri River, which eventually flows into the Mississippi River in St. Louis. The trickle-down effect of diminished water flows has caused economic losses for businesses along the Mississippi due to reduced barge traffic.

I understand and appreciate the economic challenges faced by the businesses along the Mississippi River; however, some lawmakers and groups have recently issued requests for the president to make an emergency declaration that would allow the Corps to deviate from the Missouri River Master Manual.

The Corps' Master Control Manual governs the Corps' management of the Missouri River and doesn't take into consideration the impacts of barge traffic on the Mississippi River. If the president complies with this unprecedented request, precious water would be released from the Missouri River reservoirs to aid navigation on the Mississippi River. Under existing law, such actions are not permitted by the president or the Corps of Engineers.

Even more troubling is the real concern about how the release of water from the Missouri River would impact communities in our region that are dependent on this critical water source. Due to harsh drought conditions experienced along the Missouri River, a declaration from the president would have a significant negative impact on the people and businesses that depend on Missouri River water.

According to the Corps of Engineers, the water levels on the Missouri are already 20 percent below the normal levels due to this year's drought. The release of additional water from Missouri River reservoirs would only exacerbate the drought-related conditions experienced by the communities, tribes, and industries that rely on water from the Missouri River.

That's why I have spearheaded an effort joined by members of the South Dakota, North Dakota, Kansas and Montana delegations to urge the president, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the Corps of Engineers to deny any requests for water releases. Denying the requests for an emergency declaration will prevent both short and long-term consequences such actions would have on Missouri River states.

I will continue to work with my colleagues in the Senate to ensure the president, FEMA, and the Corps balance their efforts to address this situation on the Mississippi River while ensuring they understand the negative impact such efforts could have on Missouri River communities.

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