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Fort Peck Dam

Water gushes from the spillways at the Fort Peck Dam into the Missouri River below. The dam is one of six that operate as a system on the upper Missouri River.

BISMARCK, N.D. — The U.S. Senate passed an amendment Wednesday blocking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from charging fees to access water in upper Missouri River reservoirs.

The effort spearheaded by senators from the Dakotas and Montana is part of the 2013 Water Resources Development Act, which now goes to the House.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who sponsored the bill with South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune, said North Dakota "has fought long and hard to preserve the integrity of the Missouri River and the rights of our people to use it to support their homes and their livelihoods."

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said the legislation is important for communities throughout the state and the country.

"In a state like ours, where we are constantly dealing with water issues, whether it be too much or too little, this legislation allows critical projects to advance to address our water resource needs," Heitkamp said in a statement.

The corps has proposed a fee system that would designate some water in the reservoirs as surplus because it hasn't been used for purposes authorized when dams were built.

Thune said South Dakotans should not be charged for water that is legally and historically theirs.

"The Corps' surplus water fee proposal ignores the history and precedent of the Missouri River states' water rights, and our common-sense legislation prevents a massive power grab by the Corps and ensures that the federal government honors the long-standing agreements between these Missouri River states and the Corps of Engineers," he said in a statement.

The senators say the proposed fees would violate states' rights to waters that naturally flow through their boundaries. The states have promised to sue if fees are charged.

The corps has issued free permits to tap surplus water to oil drillers and other industrial users until a national policy is developed.

Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., said the amendment provides a good resolution to the legitimate concerns raised by our states and tribes.

"The tribes and communities in South Dakota that depend on Missouri River water for safe, reliable drinking water should not face additional charges for the water coming from the reservoirs," Johnson said in a statement.