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Published May 27, 2010, 08:42 AM

South Dakota tribes want their say in Missouri River study

FORT PIERRE, S.D. — The federal agency that manages the Missouri River needs to hold meetings on American Indian reservations along the river to get tribal members’ views on a five-year study of the tributary, representatives of several South Dakota tribes said Wednesday.

By: Chet Brokaw, Associated Press

FORT PIERRE, S.D. — The federal agency that manages the Missouri River needs to hold meetings on American Indian reservations along the river to get tribal members’ views on a five-year study of the tributary, representatives of several South Dakota tribes said Wednesday.

Tribal councils and elders who were alive when the dams were built a half-century ago should get a chance to hear about the study in face-to-face meetings, representatives told officials of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“I do want somebody to come to my tribe and explain this,” said Bob Walters, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Council.

Walters and representatives of the Standing Rock and Lower Brule Sioux tribes commented during one of the first of 41 meetings the corps is holding to gather ideas for con-ducting the study. The corps study will help determine whether changes are needed in the authorized purposes of the river’s reservoir system.

A corps official said the agency will plan meetings on reservations.

The corps is gathering comment though August in Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas. Meetings also will be held in Denver, New Orleans, Memphis, Tenn., and Rock Island, Ill.

Eleven of the meetings are focused on Indian tribes, some of which lost land and had towns and residents relocated when reservoirs were built in the upper basin.

The corps planned to hear from non-Indians later Wednesday at a second meeting in Fort Pierre.

Congress authorized the $25 million study to determine whether changes need to be made in the 1944 law that establishes eight purposes for the six dams built in Montana and the Dakotas: flood control, navigation, hydropower, irrigation, water supply, recreation, water quality, and fish and wildlife.

The law gave priority to flood control and downstream barge navigation. Congress is required to approve any change in priorities among those purposes.

Management of the river system has been a contentious issue between upper basin and lower basin states, particularly during drought years.

Upper basin states want rising or stable water levels for fish reproduction and summer recreation in the reservoirs. Lower basin states want flood control and a steady flow for barges and municipal or commercial water uses.

Mark Harberg, the corps’ project manager for the study, said eventually the study could help determine benefits beyond the river system’s eight authorized purposes, Harberg said.

“We’re kind of looking at how things have developed, what is out there now, existing conditions of these purposes and other current needs in the basin to see if there are changes that might be warranted,” Harberg said.

Garland Erbele, chief water rights engineer for South Dakota’s Environment Department, said the state wants the corps to pay particular attention to water supplies, power generation, sedimentation and recreation. More than half the state’s population gets its drinking water from the Missouri River, he said.

Tribal officials at Wednesday’s meeting discussed erosion, sediment and water supply problems. Silt and fluctuating water levels have caused problems for several water systems run by tribes.

Joseph Smith, land management director for the Standing Rock Sioux, said Lake Oahe — which stretches from central South Dakota into North Dakota — has gone from full to very low to full again in just a dozen years. The reservoir is now full, but water levels were 30 feet below normal just a few years ago.

Walters said tribes had little say in the decision to build the reservoirs, yet they lost huge areas with cottonwood trees, crops, valuable medicinal plants and homes. Fluctuating water levels have exposed burial grounds, he said.

“We have so many losses,” Walters said. “Hopefully, some of those losses will be looked at.”

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