North Dakota Chafes At Draining Lake To Fill `Big Muddy'

A CONTINUING drought is starting to create a Midwest version of the water battles out West. Downstream, Midwestern shipping and hydroelectric power stations rely on a constant flow of river water. Upstream, resorts and recreation spots are seeing their most precious resource flow away. Perhaps the region's biggest tug of war is here at Lake Sakakawea, the largest lake in North Dakota and one of the largest man-made lakes in the United States.

``I figure 27 feet,'' says Richard Ganerke, eyeing the precipitous drop in the lake level with a fisherman's eye. A year ago, the water dropped so fast that the fishing boat he'd left in the lake was mired in mud four days later.

The lake is being drained to keep the drought-reduced Missouri River high enough for barges to carry grain and for hydroelectric power stations to generate electricity. But here, the low lake level has ruined the tourist season in places, with water receding thousands of feet from marinas and campgrounds. One of the three resorts has gone out of business and another, severely squeezed, because of two years of low water. North Dakotans are angry.

``To say that people here have reached a point of ultimate outrage is probably putting it mildly,'' says North Dakota Gov. George Sinner (D). The project has a long history of failed promises to the states of the upper Missouri River basin, including a cancelled federal appropriation to North Dakota for partial compensation. ``If that is in fact the attitude of Congress, let's take the dam out,'' Governor Sinner says. ``That's how angry I am about this.''

The same kind of struggle between upstream and downstream interests is also cropping up along the Mississippi River, says Brett Hulsey of the Sierra Club's Midwest office. ``I see greater competition in the future.''

The tug of war has not reached the proportions of the West's water battles. But ``there's obviously a lot of concern,'' says Paul Johnston, spokesman for the Missouri River Division of the US Army Corps of Engineers. ``It's quite a balancing act.''

The Army Corps is reviewing its operating manual, which governs the release of water from the six dams along the Missouri River. To conserve water in the reservoirs, the Corps shortened the navigational season by three weeks last year and five weeks this year. This winter it will release an average of about 10,500 cubic feet per second - a record low.

Heavy rains and a large snow melt next spring would greatly alleviate the problem. But the immediate concern is winter. Last year, the low river level allowed ice jams to form, blocking the water and causing severe intake problems for several river communities drawing water from the Missouri. This year's release will be less than last year.

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