A Water Colony: North Dakota and the Army Corps

Americans like to think of their Army as apolitical.  It just takes orders, fights wars, and provides objective tactical and strategic analysis to political leaders.  This perception of the Army could not be further from reality.  The Army is a political animal with finely-honed skills.  It has its own agenda in both domestic and foreign affairs.  Often, the Army’s self-interest is in direct conflict with the social good; a case in point, the present massive Army budget during an era of record high deficits.

The Army’s most important institutional goal is self-preservation.  Right now, it is coming under intense criticism for its mismanagement of the Missouri River in the lead up to the Great Flood of 2011.  A good deal of constructive criticism is coming from North Dakota’s Jack Dalrymple; who on August 3, 2011, went so far as to urge the Army’s removal from Missouri River decision-making.

The Army deserves much of the criticism directed at it.  But its officers are not going to take the recent verbal and written attacks lying down.  The Army gained hegemony along the Missouri through a combination of secrecy, deceit, and alleged hydrological expertise.  In the twentieth century, it wrestled the Missouri from a number of competing, heavy-weight institutions and states, including the Bureau of Reclamation, a nascent Missouri Valley Authority, the state of South Dakota, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the state of North Dakota.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, North Dakota wanted to build Garrison Dam to provide its residents with hydroelectricity, irrigation water, and a recreational lake.  The Army killed that early project by ruling that unstable foundation conditions at the Garrison site precluded the construction of a massive dam.  Another more sinister reason the Army torpedoed the project related to the lower river’s navigation channel.  Officials feared that a North Dakota dam and reservoir would siphon water away from the barge channel then taking shape between Kansas City and the mouth.

In the 1940s, the Army reversed its earlier rejection of the Garrison Dam site and went ahead and built the structure.  It did so because it was assured in the 1944 Pick-Sloan legislation that it would have operational authority over the dam and its stored waters.  The military planned to have Garrison’s reservoir water flow downstream to float the barge channel rather than serve North Dakota’s wishes.

In the past two months, there has been talk of a new era of cooperation between the upper and lower basin in Missouri River matters.  Cooperation is good.  But let’s not deceive ourselves.  The upper and lower basin do not have a shared vision for the river.  The lower basin and especially the state of Missouri want the Army to continue to manage the river for the navigation channel and for flood control along the lower valley.  The upper basin and North Dakota want to protect the reservoir fishery while at the same time ensuring that the reservoirs are low enough on March 1 of each year to prevent a repeat of this year’s flood.  Dalrymple’s recent proposal for a Missouri River Compact widens the gap that exists between the two sides.  It directly challenges the lower basin’s long-standing dominance of the Missouri by turning authority for the river over to a yet-to-be-determined organization.

Basin residents can expect the fight over the river’s future to become more heated in the weeks and months ahead.  The Army and its downstream coaches know how to fight – that is why they have determined river policy since the 1880s – and why the upper basin, and North Dakota, lost every major bout with the Army.  Just this past spring, North Dakota failed in its bid to have more water evacuated from Lake Sakakawea before the onset of the catastrophic flood.  It is quite possible the Army sacrificed North Dakota’s need for flood control in order to keep high flows out of the lower valley and its vulnerable navigation channel.

It is unfortunate, but the upper basin is a water colony of the lower basin and it has been from the git go.  Every time the upper basin has resisted its subordinate role along the Missouri, the Army has knocked it down and out.  As a result, Dalrymple can expect strong opposition from the Army to his compact proposal.  But he could still win.  He will need powerful allies, including the Obama administration, the Department of Interior, the Department of Agriculture, the river tribes, and the lower basin states of Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas.  He confronts a difficult task in seeking the support of those entities, but the Army’s recent incompetence along the Missouri will make his arguments more persuasive.

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