Army Corps Gives Away "Surplus Water"

Mark Twain once said: “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting.” I think he was on to something, because after reading about what the Army Corps of Engineers is doing on the Missouri River, I really need a drink.  Have a seat, pour some whiskey, and let’s talk water.

The Corps has designated billions (that’s BILLIONS with a B) of gallons of water from Lake Sakakawea, a Missouri River reservoir in western North Dakota, as “surplus.” Extra water is great, right?  After all, the Missouri River has a big job to do.  It flows from Montana to Missouri and provides drinking water, recreation, hydropower, and irrigation in seven states before flowing into the Mississippi River just north of St. Louis.  All of this “surplus water” would be particularly helpful given that over the past decade, drought conditions have brought river levels to record lows, halting transportation, placing a massive strain on farmers, lowering the quality and quantity of drinking water, and harming wildlife as their ecosystems dry up around them. 

Thank goodness the Corps found all of this extra water!  Not so fast.  The Corps suggests that because every drop of water allocated through permits hasn’t been used, there is “surplus.” But given the issues experienced by communities downstream, it seems this idea of “surplus water” only exists on paper.  Nonetheless, the Corps has entered into what will be the first of many “surplus water” agreements with industry suppliers to fuel the demands of oil and gas companies capitalizing on the fracking boom in the Bakken Region of North Dakota.  So this “surplus water” that the Corps has designated won’t be going towards fixing the existing problems down the river system. 

In fact, the Corps has one more trick up its sleeve.  Just as fast as they made “surplus water” appear out of thin air, they can make it disappear…forever.  What’s worse than the fact that they’re planning to give billions of gallons of water away to companies who will turn around and sell it to frackers is that water pumped out of the lake for fracking won’t be returned to the water cycle like water used for irrigation or municipal purposes.  Since fracking water is mixed with chemicals and sand before it’s pumped down into the ground, it’s pretty much gone for good.  Much of it stays there, thousands of feet below the surface. And what does come back up after fracking is so polluted that it can generally only be disposed of by pumping it back into the ground via wastewater disposal wells. 

Having control over a precious resource does not give the Corps license to squander it.  We need the Corps to be looking out for all water users - now and in the future - and not just the oil and gas industry.  Given the severe regional drought, the stressed river system, and the permanent nature of removing water for fracking, let’s hope the Corps decides to more responsibly manage the public’s water. 

About the Authors

Amanda Jahshan

Wildlife Energy Conservation Fellow, Lands & Wildlife program

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