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Know the West

South Dakota pulls plug on Missouri River meetings


Blaming a bureaucratic process that has dragged on for too long without progress, South Dakota officials have withdrawn their state from the Missouri River Basin Association.

Nettie Myers, secretary of the state's Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said, "It seems like we have the same meetings over and over, and nothing is accomplished."

The Missouri River Basin Association was founded in 1981 by eight Missouri River state governors. Their aim was to bring river states together to settle disputes without resorting to litigation or congressional battles.

The river basin's upper and lower regions have long disagreed, with the lower basin wanting the river controlled for barging and the upper basin wanting water left in reservoirs for recreation. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which controls the river and its dams, has always said navigation comes first.

According to Richard Opper, executive director of the Missouri River Basin Association, the organization is making headway as it attempts to bring the basin's interest groups - including Indian tribes whose land was flooded by dams - and states together. Opper said a recent goal of the association has been to identify areas of agreement in states along the river. While he sympathized with South Dakota's impatience, Opper said, the state's pullout "is squandering an opportunity."

Six years ago, when the Corps of Engineers reviewed its management of Missouri River dams, reformers were hopeful. Since then, numerous public meetings have been held, and many studies and reports issued. Yet the Corps' management remains unchanged.

Last June, the Corps announced it intended to delay a final decision on proposing management revisions for at least two more years. Myers and others concerned about protecting water levels in the Missouri's upper-basin reservoirs accused the Corps of delaying its decision to placate political interests in the lower basin. The lower basin is generally happy with the Corps' emphasis on barging and prefers that the agency operate the river as it has for the past 30 years.

For Myers and her boss, South Dakota Gov. William Janklow, the two-year delay was the final insult. "Justice delayed is justice denied," said Myers. "I think what the Corps is doing is unconscionable."

Myers charged that the Corps does not sit at the bargaining table as an equal partner with Missouri River states. "The Corps operates independently," she said. "They are not accountable."

"The Corps," countered Richard Opper, "will listen to the states if we can agree on the issues."

Peter Carrels reports from Aberdeen, South Dakota.