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October 04, 2012 09:55 PM

Resisting Rates On The Missouri River

Chamberlain, SD

The US Army Corps of Engineers is looking at a plan to charge a fee for using Missouri River water. That means cities, towns and rural water systems would have to pay the Corps of Engineers for the water they need to supply customers.

"Chamberlain pulls its water out of the Missouri River. We actually pull it off the very bottom of the channel," Chamberlain City Engineer Greg Powell said about the city’s drinking water supply.

In fact, Chamberlain began doing that decades before the US Army Corps of Engineers even built dams on the Missouri.

"We pulled water out of the Missouri River for 50 to 60 years prior to it being flooded. We did not need the dams to store water for us to have water for this community," Powell said.

That's why the proposal from the Corps of Engineers is being met with resistance from officials like Chamberlain Mayor Doug Nelson and Powell.  The Corps wants to charge communities for surplus water storage.

"The Corps' proposal frustrates me to no end,” Powell said. “I don't understand how they think they can have the right to charge communities in South Dakota or for that matter anywhere along the Missouri River, for use for municipal water or irrigation.”

"An average cost would be about $1.50 per customer per month, which is quite an impact on their bill when you look at the $25 bill that they get. Add another $1.50 in these times and it will make it a little bit rougher for everybody," Nelson said.

The Corps says it has authority to charge for water and is being directed by the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works to conduct this study. Officials say it's prompted by new requests to tap into the river.

"That was really, as the result of new users requiring the use of surplus water storage within the basin," US Army Corps of Engineers Project Manager Larry Janis said.

But United States Senators John Thune and Tim Johnson along with Senators from North Dakota and Montana are questioning the plan.  They’ve already requested a Congressional hearing.

"This is absolutely outrageous in terms of what it means to South Dakota both accessing water that is our water," Thune said.

Thune has also talked with the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works.

"She said there's a section six in the 1944 Flood Control Act that authorizes them to charge for surplus water and my question is then why haven't you been doing it for the last 70 years? Why now all of a sudden, out of the blue, have you determined that states have to pay fees to use this water?" Thune said.

Officials say it’s not just about the price the Corps of Engineers wants to charge for the water but it's also about the precedent this would set for years to come.

"The whole proposal creates a mish-mash of arguments of state's rights to control their water," Powell said.

South Dakota's Attorney General has threatened a lawsuit if the Corps moves forward with the proposal and Thune doesn't believe the Corps has the authority to carry it out.

"Clearly in our view it violates both a legal precedent, legal right, historical precedent and it really comes down to being a sovereignty issue. This is water that runs through our state," Thune said.

The Corps will take public comment on the plan until October 10 and says even though new requests for water are prompting this plan, existing users like Chamberlain would likely have to pay.

"The authority applies to all domestic, municipal and industrial users and so if an entity or individual falls into that group it could affect them," Janis said.

And that's why officials in Chamberlain are speaking up.

"A guy doesn't mind paying taxes but where is that tax going to and what's it for? That's basically what they are asking us to do is pay a tax on something we're utilizing and where does that tax go?" Nelson said.

"Hoping the Corps realizes that they've made a mistake and that they do not have the authority to do a reallocation of benefits and hoping that we don't have lawsuits to prove that," Powell said.

But that's what it may take to make sure it doesn't cost any more money for South Dakotans to tap into the ‘Mighty Mo.’

Besides Chamberlain, other South Dakota communities that could be affected by the proposal are Oacoma, Springfield, Mobridge and several rural water systems up and down the river.

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