Boaters are warned of high-water obstacles at this Missouri River launching dock at Chamberlain, S.D., in this July 2011 photo. Chris Huber / Forum Communications Co.
Tom Lawrence - The Daily Republic of Mitchell, S.D.
PIERRE, S.D. – Eric Stasch is looking forward to a better summer on the Missouri River.
Stasch, the South Dakota Army Corps of Engineers’ operations project manager for the Oahe Dam in central South Dakota, dealt with record flooding that plagued the Midwest in 2011. It damaged property, displaced people and shifted shorelines.
The high water also impacted recreational opportunities for people who boat, fish and enjoy other activities along the Missouri River, Stasch said. The relatively dry early winter of 2011-12 offers the promise that won’t be repeated.
“I’m hoping this is more of a normal year for us,” he said. “We’re all hoping for a more normal year to get people’s lives back to normal, to let them have fun and not worry about flooding.”
Having fun and spending time in, on and along the Missouri River has been a part of human existence in the area as long as man has walked, swam and boated in the area.
Archaeological digs and discoveries prove that humans have interacted with the river for more than 10,000 years.
Numerous American Indian tribes depended on the river for food, travel and pleasure. But the massive floods that plagued the Missouri led some to call for greater controls on the river.
Troy Becker / The Forum
The Pick-Sloan Missouri Program was created by the federal Flood Control Act of 1944, and designed to create a plan for water use in the Missouri River Basin. It is named for Lewis A. Pick, director of the Missouri River office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and William Glenn Sloan, director of the Billings, Mont., office of the United States Bureau of Reclamation.
While flood control was a major concern after repeated flooding, the program was also intended to assist navigation, offer irrigation to landowners, supplement water supply, generate power, provide municipal and industrial water supplies, and perform stream-pollution abatement and sediment control.
Recreation also was a part of the plan from the start – the preservation and enhancement of fish and wildlife habitat, and the creation of recreation opportunities, were listed as goals.
Recreation got a boost nearly 50 years ago, when the Federal Water Project Recreation Act of 1965 directed the corps to erect campgrounds, boat ramps and other recreational areas and facilities by the reservoirs.
The Missouri National Recreational River covers 98 miles of near-pristine river that flows along the South Dakota and Nebraska border. It was designated by Congress under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1979 and expanded to its current size in 1991.
Overall, the Missouri River has more than 1,500 square miles of open water, and millions of people take advantage of the water to do what their ancestors did: swim, fish, boat and enjoy life along and in the river.
All that recreational use is a major economic engine for the region, dumping up to $100 million into the economy, according to estimates.
Tom Curran, the project manager for the Fort Randall Dam in southeastern South Dakota, has fished in all the reservoirs along the Missouri River during his 25 years with the corps, the last 12 in charge of the dam.
Curran said the corps has to take a variety of uses into consideration as it manages the water in the Missouri River system.
Water supplies for downstream communities, irrigation, intakes for power plants that need cooling water in the summer, navigation for barge traffic – all must be factored in, he said.
Recreation is just as important, Curran said.
“There’s all those uses that kind of compete for the water,” he said. “All those uses are authorized by Congress, and the corps tries to balance and provide for those authorized purposes.
“The corps is required by that legislation to operate the project for all those purposes. They’re all equal except for flood control. Protection of life and property is first. The rest are all handled equally.”
He said he oversees several forms of recreation, including camping, fishing, boating, skiing, scuba diving and other kinds of outdoor activity.
Curran said while flooding made headlines in 2011, drought is a far more common concern.
“Even though we had the high water last year, people were able to get in and boat and fish,” he said. “Some stretches of river below Fort Randall were closed by the state of South Dakota and the corps. There were impacts to navigation as well.”
But in the end, the corps’ decisions are guided by rules, not whims and personal views, Curran said.
The Master Manual governs the system and serves as a guide for decisions on the release of water, he said.
John Cooper of Pierre said recreational facilities on and along the river have never been better, but it’s taken a lot of effort and several legal battles.
Cooper served as secretary of the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks for 12 years under Govs. Bill Janklow and Mike Rounds, then spent two years as a senior adviser on Missouri River issues to Rounds before he was named to the GF&P Commission, where he has served for two and a half years.
He said the corps has not always fulfilled the promise of providing adequate recreational opportunities along the Upper Basin of the Missouri.
“I don’t agree that it was given the same budget priority for the Corps of Engineers that the other beneficial uses have received,” Cooper said. “People from the Upper Basin felt navigation was given a greater emphasis.”
It took three lawsuits filed in federal court by the state of South Dakota during the Janklow administration in the 1990s to convince the corps to be fair with the water, he said.
“We proved that the recreation industry was not getting the same priority, the same legal priority, that it should be given,” he said.
“Changes were made to upgrade, to at least put as much on the Upper Basin as the lower,” Cooper said. “It’s a matter of public record.”
What was particularly irritating during the debate and legal battles was the marked decline of the boat and barge traffic on the Missouri, he said.
But he said the fact that other states along the Missouri River have larger populations and more political power often was a deciding factor.
In lean years, South Dakota and the Upper Basin went wanting for water, Cooper said. In wet years, they flooded.
“The Upper Basin stores the water during major flood events, sometimes to the detriment of recreation businesses,” Cooper said. “It also covers farmland.”
He said a deal struck in 2000 turned land along the Missouri over to tribes and the state, and many more recreational facilities were added, Cooper said.
“You’d have to be blind not to see the massive improvement state Game, Fish and Parks did with the land turned over to us,” he said.
Boat ramps and electricity were added, recreational facilities built and more people and dollars came to the areas.
He said despite winning battles in the past, the struggle continues. Cooper noted that Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer has declined to attend meetings with the Corps of Engineers, saying all they wanted to do was drain his state’s reservoirs.
“And he has a point,” Cooper said. “The downstream states have a lot more Electoral College votes and more population. We’re often given short shrift.”
Karen Kern, the executive director of the Great Lakes of South Dakota Tourism Association, said while the 2011 flooding was a challenge, it was met and will be overcome.
“The flooding this past year had a negative impact on some areas, and others were not affected,” Kern said.
“As for Lake Oahe, the fishing was wonderful, lasted forever, and flooding for the most part was not an issue.
“But, below the Oahe Dam, there was much destruction and loss of income, plus the repair of damage is huge. Campgrounds were closed, ramps closed, marinas had to take boats out – it varied depending on where you were and what the river was doing.”
Many people took a big hit, she said, especially since the flooding lasted for such a long time. Rather than a flood that comes, crests and then goes down, this one lasted for three months.
There are three new islands, “small little things,” he said, that formed in the south end of Lake Oahe.
Two other islands in Lake Sharpe that have long been popular recreational spots, LaFromboise Island and Farm Island, grew larger as soil was deposited on them. A causeway that connected LaFromboise to the mainland was breached, and the island can now only be accessed by boat.
Trail systems on both islands for hiking and biking were undamaged, and natural areas that are popular destinations are still intact, he said. Deer hunting continued on both islands last fall.
There were other impacts.
“There were some fish that came through our tunnels that died in the process,” Stasch said. “But the fishing in the river section downstream of the dam was just phenomenal. It was just fantastic fishing all year long.
“On the lakes themselves, the impacts were not that great. Like Lake Oahe, we were only a foot over our record high. All our boat landings were useable,” he said. “The biggest impacts were on the ‘river’ stretches along the river.
It was just too high and came up too fast.”
Kern said there are physical reminders of the flooding.
“One of the biggest issues now is that the river has changed from what it was before. Channels are different, siltation moved, there are islands where there were none before, and many disappeared. Bank erosion was great from the Oahe Dam to the south,” she said. “Case in point – I heard a bunch of beavers had to relocate because their homes are now under 30 feet of water. And there is debris from the bank erosion.”
Fishing is a major lure for tourists. “We’ve had calls asking about it – whether the bait fish are OK or if they all got shipped down to Louisiana,” Kern said.
Fisheries experts in the state took more sample surveys than they normally do, Kern said, and now they’re trying to see what they’ve got.
The fishing is still good up and down the river, according to Kern; in fact, anglers have been fishing longer this fall and winter than most observers predicted.
Kern said water recreation is one of the top items listed by potential visitors to her area.
“There are many resorts along the Missouri River that cater to anglers and hunters,” Kern said. “The guiding business is huge in this region – many people depend on the income from hunting and fishing, and there are larger upscale resorts to small mom and pop businesses – all bringing in tax money for their communities and counties.”
Other popular forms of recreation on and near the Missouri River include Indian culture sites, historical sites, biking, hiking, museums, canoeing and kayaking, and birding. The Great Lakes of South Dakota Tourism Association invests marketing money in promoting the region along the Missouri River, Kern said.
The relatively dry winter has people wondering if the reverse of last year will be a factor for people playing on and near the river.
Curran said while the mountain snowpack is at a normal depth, there is little snow elsewhere in the region. A dry year is possible, and even likely, he said.
It’s something that has been dealt with in the past, Curran said. Decisions are made every year on how much water can be released, and recreation has a voice in that decision.
“Probably one of the toughest factors we face is to make the public understand that even in drought, we can get to the Missouri River – it’s a huge river, and the bodies of water are large,” Kern said. “The perception is that access isn’t out there.”
As the water has receded, things are getting back to normal for the people who work and play along the Mighty Mo.
The Oahe Marina in Fort Pierre, just south of the Oahe Dam, was the first major business or property to be surrounded and flooded when the Missouri River’s waters began to rise in late May. The business includes a restaurant, convenience store and bait shop and four cabins and is now re-opened.
Boat slips are available for the summer, the marina notes on its website.
Owner Steve Rounds has a lease to run the business with the Game, Fish and Parks Department, since the marina is on state property.
Kern said she expects a good summer.
“South Dakotans are a hardy bunch, and we will get through this, and tourism along the river will be better than ever,” she said.
Tom Lawrence reports for the Mitchell (S.D.) Daily Republic.