Rounds cites possible Oahe water problems

Michelle Herrick

Michelle Herrick

PIERRE (CNS) — If Lake Oahe water levels continue to drop this summer, public drinking water systems that serve 55,000 customers in South Dakota could suffer, Gov. Mike Rounds told reporters Feb. 19.

“Right now we are not seeing problems,” Rounds said. “We are very concerned that as the summer rolls on and into the fall that if the water level were to drop these systems would be in jeopardy.”

Rounds said that the systems’ water quality could deteriorate, which will make it more costly to bring the water up to safe standards.

“The increase in sedimentation, taste and odor problems would be associated with lower reservoir levels,” he said.

The systems using Lake Oahe as a water source are the city of Mobridge, WEB Rural Water System, Tri County Rural Water System, MidDakota Rural Water System, Indian Memorial and Wakpala.

“We feel strongly that conservation measures should be taken early in the season to conserve water within the reservoir systems,” Rounds said.

The governor also addressed two other main concerns associated with low water levels – irrigation and recreation.

The water levels in Lake Oahe are going to continue to suffer from the drought, Rounds said. Only 18 of its 32 boat ramps will be operational this summer. The water levels of Lake Oahe have dropped 28 feet since 2000. However, the lakes of Lewis and Clark, Francis Case and Sharpe will all have normal levels this year.

“The good news for fishermen is that the catch of a walleye longer than 18 inches will be more common on Lake Oahe as the walleye population matures,” Rounds said.

This means the lake will be in high demand and making quality boating access a necessity, Rounds said.

“During the winter we were able to extend the ramps to the maximum level,” said Doug Hofer with the Game, Fish and Parks. “We are going to be ready to provide good access to about 14 boating ramps as soon as the ice comes off the lake this spring.”

The Game, Fish and Parks spent $1.5 million last year extending the boat ramps on Lake Oahe.

Rounds said 15,000 acres in South Dakota were not irrigated last year because of difficulty reaching the water. The state has permitted about 43,000 acres to be irrigated from the Lake Oahe reservoir.

“This is a tremendous cost for irrigators who have the cost of pumps, of the systems, and who have set up their fields for irrigation,” Rounds said. “To not be able to tap the water means that they have a considerable amount of capital invested with no way to recoup.”

Rounds also discussed the projected March release of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers master manual and its operational plan to manage the Missouri River.

He predicted that the corps would include more conservation measures, especially since they agreed to limit the barge traffic season by 30 to 40 days.

“There appears to be an interest for us to unbalance the reservoirs,” Rounds said. “And to allow us to have that spring rise in our reservoirs.”

Game, Fish and Parks Secretary John Cooper, said that the corps will have to contend with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report stating the population of pallid sturgeon are in danger. Release of water from the dams affects that fish’s habitat.

“We are in dire need of some fairness in the way the water is run,” Cooper said.

“We are certainly hoping that they look at it in terms of the recreation industry and the irrigation needs and the water supply needs for the upper basin.”

The majority of the lawsuits dealing with the way the corps manages the river have been consolidated into one, in which South Dakota is involved.

A report was filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, and Charlie McGuigon, assistant to the attorney general, said they expect to hear if the high court will hear the case by June.