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The Leavenworth Times - Leavenworth, KS
  • Nowak: Drought causes debate over river management

  • We are experiencing the worst U.S. drought since 1956, more than 50 years ago, and it is expected to continue through at least February according to the U.S. Climate Prediction Center.
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  • We are experiencing the worst U.S. drought since 1956, more than 50 years ago, and it is expected to continue through at least February according to the U.S. Climate Prediction Center.
    At home, you need to be watering your trees whenever the weather is warm enough to get your hoses out. We are so lucky to have the Missouri as a source of water to keep our trees alive and our lawns green.
    On the Mississippi River, the low water is threatening to slow down barge traffic. Unless we get some really significant rainfall this week, navigation on the Mississippi is expected to really slow down by mid-December and the river will reach a record low on Dec. 22 according to a Corps spokesman.
    So, a number of U.S. senators and a bigger bunch of representatives and a few governors have written the Corps to blast away and remove the rocks in the river near Cairo, IL, and to resume the release of water from the reservoirs along the Missouri River.
    The Corps has plans to blow up the rocks, but that will take many months to accomplish. In the meantime, the only thing left to do is to drain down our reservoirs so that boats can float on the Mississippi.
    A group of commercial operators are pressing President Obama to declare a federal emergency so that they can use water from the Missouri to avert what they are calling a potential catastrophe.
    Apparently several billions of dollars of goods move on the Mississippi in December and January.
    For their part, the Corps is sticking to their Congressional mandate to not use Missouri River water to supply the Mississippi in order to protect the eight congressionally authorized purposes for the Missouri.
    A Corps spokesman pointed out that the Missouri is used for irrigation, hydro power, municipal and industrial uses, and supports a multi-million dollar sport fishing industry that is critical to the sustainment of communities along the upper Missouri.
    This is a continuing battle between the upriver states and the downriver states for water.
    What would happen if the downriver states got their wish and they did drain down the upper river reservoirs and then the drought continued for another year or two? Historic droughts sometimes continued for decades and some for more than a century, devastating population centers.
    Iowa Governor Terry Branstad is calling for a "balanced approach", but to him, balance means draining the Missouri River down to support the Mississippi. The folks in the Dakotas and Montana do not see much balance in that approach.
    During the Upper Midwest drought in the 1980s, all of the Main Stem reservoirs fell to record low levels. That is why the 1993 flood was not as bad as it could have been if the Corps had to release water like it did during the 2011 flood.
    Page 2 of 2 - During the drought, riverside communities had to extend their intake pipes for miles and eventually had to have water trucked in because pumps can only move water uphill so far. I wonder how a really low river would affect our water supplies here, in Johnson County and in Kansas City. The aquifer from which many utilities draw the water is supplied by the surface river.
    Communities along the sea coasts can desalinate water and will probably always have a supply, albeit more costly. Cities in the Midwest cannot produce water from rocks and sand. And so far, farmers have done a really good job of drawing down the largest aquifer to grow corn in the already dry Great Plains and the oil and gas industry is using millions of gallons in North Dakota to give us cheap fuel.
    I don't know if this is the start of the water wars that Samuel Clemens spoke of or if this will all be over when it starts to rain and snow accumulates in the mountains. I guess we'll just have to wait and see.
    Matt Nowak lives in Lansing and works as a natural resources manager.

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