The battles started in 1982, when Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska challenged a government contract allowing water to be drawn from the Missouri River in South Dakota to flush coal through a pipeline to power plants in the southeast. The U.S. Supreme Court blocked the project, but other lawsuits followed, including an effort by upstream states to reduce the water released from dams in an attempt to boost sport fishing in the reservoirs.
Missouri, meanwhile, sued the Army Corps of Engineers when it held back water because of droughts and shortened the navigation season. Environmental groups also joined the court battles, advocating for spring surges and summer declines in downstream river levels to help threatened species of birds and fish.
So far, no lawsuits have been filed in the current competition for water. But battle lines have been drawn.
In May, North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven teamed up with Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri to tour dams and levees along the Missouri River a year after devastating floods in 2011. The Republicans stressed their desire to work together to improve flood control and river management. Now they are on opposing sides.
“There are times when they need to get rid of water, and we need to appreciate what we have to do about that,” Blunt said. “And there are times when we need water, and they need to appreciate the fact that we need that water, even though they’d rather not get rid of it.”
Said Hoeven: “Obviously, we’re not going to be in agreement all the time.”
Senators from 17 states along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers sent Obama a letter urging him to intervene and release water from Missouri River reservoirs. A day later, 15 officeholders from upstream Missouri River states countered with a letter warning the White House that intervention would be unlawful and would “only exacerbate the drought-related losses already experienced” by towns, Native American tribes and industries that rely on the Missouri River.
The Corps of Engineers, which manages both the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, says its guidelines prohibit it from releasing water from the Missouri River reservoirs for the primary purpose of improving navigation on the Mississippi. That position was backed up by a 1990 report from the federal government’s General Accounting Office, though officials from downstream states believe Obama could trump that by declaring an emergency to avoid an “economic calamity.”
Martell says it’s hard to envision a truce in the water wars.
“The years we’ve really needed the water to stay here, it’s gone,” Martell said. “And then when we let it go, they complain about that, too. I don’t think there’s any happy medium.”