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Missouri River management flows slowly toward settlement

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RAPID CITY, S.D. - The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers appears to be in a conciliatory mood with tribes as it tries to finalize a Master Manual defining the regulation and management of the Missouri River.

A recent hearing before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs struck a harmonious cord for Brigadier General William Grisoli, commander of the Northwest Division of the Corps of Engineers.

"I take the trust responsibility seriously and I respect the importance of the river to you, both economically and culturally," Gen. Grisoli told tribal leaders at a recent summit.

What the various tribes located along the river and in the Missouri River Basin want the Corps of Engineers to learn is the definition of consultation that the treaties take precedent, and that quantification of water by the tribes is not in the best interest of the tribes.

As the Corps of Engineers enters into the final stages of finalizing the Master Manual that will direct the river's operation, detail and definitions must be clearly defined to satisfy the tribal officials.

Corps of Engineers officials said consultation was clearly their responsibility and that they wanted to work together so there would be no harm done toward the tribe. They added that the Corps had a fiduciary responsibility to the tribes and agreed repeatedly that the treaties meant that tribes had reserved water rights to the Missouri River.

"When you say fiduciary I get excited," said Jim Snow, Winnebago Tribe. "What is the standard, who is going to hold to it?"

What is at stake is the protection and preservation of the sacred and cultural sites along the river, and access to the water for irrigation and personal use. Tribes on the upper Missouri where the hydropower dams were constructed in the 1950s lost millions of acres of land the erosion continues as the water levels of the reservoirs continue to fluctuate.

The past four years have been classified as drought years, yet the lakes have been lowered to accommodate downstream navigation. That drops Lake Oahe down by 28.3 feet below average, Fort Peck down 24.3 feet and Garrison down 17 feet. What that means to the tribes is that burial sites are exposed and looters have easy access because there is little cooperation between the states, tribes and federal government over jurisdiction.

Rose Hargrave, Corps of Engineers, admitted the Corps did not know what its

responsibility to the tribes was in the beginning.

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"The tribes have fewer recreation areas because they never shared in the benefits. We need the tribe's help in management of the ecosystem and we don't see our responsibility toward the tribes as ever ending. We recognize the reserved water rights as a matter of law," Hargrave said.

A sticking point with the tribes is an implied requirement that each tribe has to quantify its water need to be included in the Master Manual.

"Many tribes don't want to quantify. If you are comfortable, we can put reserved water rights in and we will change the wording and you can quantify later," Gen. Grisoli said.

Gary Collins, president of the Mni Sose Water Rights Coalition, said if the tribes quantified the water and reserved a large portion, people down river would be upset. "I see a collision coming. We need not just reserved water rights but priority dates."

Collins referred to the historical perspective of treaties and occupation of the land as dates to be considered as a priority.

"I don't care about down river navigation. We want to water our crops. If we can't have water for people so barges can run there is something wrong," said Carl Four Star, Fort Peck Tribe.

The Corps officials agreed that the tribes have the right to take the water out of the river and reservoirs. The Missouri River is one of the few rivers that doesn't have regulations on who can drop a inlet pipe in to extract water for irrigation or other uses.

And as to the benefits, the Western Area Power Authority takes the money from the generation of power on all the dams, returns a percentage to the tribes and the rest of the money ends up in the Department of Energy. Tribal complaints brought the questions because the people who lost the land for the reservoirs still see very little benefit.

"We need your help in things like this. Congress can change things, I don't control the resources. I get $3 million in my budget, it is a lot of money, but not enough. We need to climb the mountain together," Gen. Grisoli said.

A Programmatic Agreement is under development that will take care of those issues and the next meeting will take place in Bismarck, N.D. on Nov. 18 - 20.

The Master Manual has been under consideration for 14 years, started just after the worst drought in history of the dams in the 1980s. The present drought is approaching the level of the 1980s drought. The Master Manual must be completed by March 2004 or federal courts will determine river management. The fifth and final Summit with the tribes will take place in February 2004.