Gov. Brian Schweitzer has asked President Barack Obama to ignore pleas for an emergency declaration for more water to float barges on the drought-stricken Mississippi River.
"The emergency drought plan called for by a few senators relies on an emergency bailout from water in the Upper Missouri Basin," Schweitzer wrote in a letter Thursday, a copy of which was provided to The Gazette. "It is a knee-jerk, illegal reaction that will be tied up in courts for a very long time. It will exacerbate rather than soothe the tensions between the upper and lower Missouri River Basins, and it will render meaningless past and future basin-wide planning efforts if you allow this precedent of discarding those plans at a moment’s notice."
Schweitzer said the governors of North Dakota and South Dakota drafted a letter similar to his and asked him to join them in signing that document, but he declined. He said that after 2011's record flood, those states sought further reductions in Fort Peck Reservoir to ensure enough capacity to catch any future spring runoff, reducing the risk of another flood in the Dakotas.
"There wouldn't be any water to float boats if they'd had their way," he said.
Shipping and barge groups and three governors, 15 U.S. senators and 62 U.S. House members have written the Obama administration to ask the president to declare a state of emergency.
Schweitzer said the plan that guides the management of the Missouri River, which feeds Fort Peck Reservoir, does not include providing water for barge traffic on the Mississippi.
"The revised Master Manual for the Missouri River may not be perfect, but it should not be abandoned hastily when put to the test," he wrote. "Under the Master Manual, the Corps operates the Missouri River Mainstem Reservoir System to serve eight authorized purposes, but operations intended solely for the benefit of Mississippi River navigation are prohibited. The GAO confirmed the validity of this prohibition in a 1990 investigation of the matter."
Without the water releases, the downstream states say, the Mississippi River could be closed to barge traffic in December and January, halting the transport of $7 billion in commercial and agricultural products.
Whether there is drought or flood, Schweitzer said, "the conclusion everyone always comes to is drain Fort Peck."