Senator John Thune (R-S.D.), along with members of the South Dakota, North Dakota, Kansas, and Montana delegations, sent a letter Friday, November 30, 2012, to President Barack Obama, Assistant Secretary of the Army Jo-Ellen Darcy, and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate. The letter urges the President to deny recent requests to aid Mississippi River navigation by declaring a state of economic emergency and authorizing the Corps of Engineers to release water from the Missouri River’s dams and reservoirs.
The drought-induced low water levels have caused economic losses resulting from reduced barge traffic on the Mississippi River. In order to curb these losses, some lawmakers and groups have issued requests for the president to make an emergency declaration under the Stafford Act for economic assistance. However, such actions are not permitted under existing law and would amount to an unlawful increase of water from the Missouri River’s system of dams and reservoirs to aid navigation on the Mississippi River. These actions are outside the existing management practices that the Corps is authorized to make regarding water stored in the Missouri River system. Additionally, due to the harsh drought conditions also experienced along the Missouri River, a declaration from the president would have a significant negative impact on the people and businesses along the Missouri River. The releases of additional water from Missouri River reservoirs would only exacerbate the drought-related conditions experienced by the communities, tribes, and industries that rely on water from the Missouri River.
“Communities along the Missouri have already been hit hard by the drought,” said Thune. “These communities rely on the Missouri as a water source, and according to the Corps of Engineers, water levels on the Missouri are already 20 percent below the normal drought levels for the season. I call on the president to deny requests for water releases in order to prevent the harmful impact such actions would have on Missouri River states in both the short and long-term.”
The text of the letter is below.
November 30, 2012
The Honorable Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
The Honorable Jo-Ellen Darcy
Assistant Secretary of the Army
108 Army Pentagon
Washington, DC 20310
Mr. William Craig Fugate
Federal Emergency Management Agency
500 C Street SW, Room 828
Washington, DC 20472
Dear Mr. President, Secretary Darcy, Administrator Fugate:
We write to express our strong opposition to the misguided efforts of those encouraging you to make an emergency declaration under the authority of the Stafford Act due to economic losses resulting from reduced barge traffic on the Mississippi River. Because of drought-induced low water levels, you have been requested to unlawfully increase water releases from the Missouri River’s system of dams and reservoirs specifically to aid navigation on the Mississippi River.
As you know, the Corps of Engineers does not have the legal authority to release Missouri River reservoir water specifically to aid Mississippi River navigation. The General Accounting Office (now known as the Government Accountability Office) concluded in a report on this precise issue that the Corps is not authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1944 to operate reservoirs on the Missouri River for the primary benefit of navigation on the Mississippi River. Under the Missouri River Mainstem Reservoir System Master Control Manual, the Corps operates the Missouri River mainstem system for eight authorized purposes: flood control, hydropower, water supply, water quality, recreation, irrigation, fish and wildlife, and Missouri River navigation. Seeking to utilize significant water resources on the Missouri River for the benefit of navigation on the Mississippi River would not only be short-sighted, but would also cause harm to our states and the other authorized purposes within the Missouri River basin both in the short and long-term.
An unlawful order to increase releases of Missouri River reservoir water from Gavins Point Dam will undoubtedly have a negative impact on the people and many businesses in the states we represent, which are also suffering overwhelmingly from the effects of drought. As the chief of the Corps’ Missouri Water Management Division has noted, “[t]he drought in the Missouri River basin has affected the reservoir system in two ways: there is less water coming in and more water going out.” Clearly, unlawful releases of additional water from Missouri River reservoirs will only exacerbate the drought-related losses already experienced by the communities, tribes, and industries that rely on water from the Missouri River.
Moreover, nowhere in the Stafford Act is authority granted the President to use federal resources to alleviate economic losses, including for the businesses and industries experiencing losses due to reduced Mississippi River barge traffic. Under the Stafford Act, the President is directed under a designation to direct any Federal agency “…to save lives, protect property and public health and safety, and lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe.” The Stafford Act is designed to help those who are affected by a natural catastrophe, not those impacted by a so-called “economic catastrophe.” The request that the President make an emergency declaration under the Stafford Act for economic assistance is misguided as it asks for an option not legally available to the President. We urge you to deny these requests without delay.
In conclusion, we can appreciate the situation that navigation users have faced this year on the Mississippi River, but the relief requested is outside of the authorities contained in the Stafford Act.
Senator John Thune (R-S.D.)
Senator Max Baucus (D-Mont.)
Senator Kent Conrad (D-N.D.)
Senator John Hoeven (R-N.D.)
Senator Tim Johnson (D-S.D.)
Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kans.)
Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kans.)
Senator Jon Tester (D-Mont.)
Governor Sam Brownback (R-Kans.)
Governor Jack Dalrymple (R-N.D.)
Governor Dennis Daugaard (R-S.D.)
Representative Rick Berg (R-N.D.)
Representative Lynn Jenkins (R-Kans.)
Representative Kristi Noem (R-S.D.)
Representative Kevin Yoder (R-Kans.)
Senator Barbara Boxer, Chairman, Committee on Environment & Public Works
Senator James Inhofe, Ranking Member, Committee on Environment & Public Works
Senator Daniel Inouye, Chairman, Committee on Appropriations
Senator Thad Cochran, Ranking Member, Committee on Appropriations
 United States General Accounting Office Report to Congressional Requesters, GAO/RCED-91-3. Corps’ 1988 Missouri River Water Releases Met Guidelines. November 1990. Page 9. Available at http://gao.gov/assets/220/213275.pdf
 US Army Corps of Engineers News Release. “Continued Drought Conditions Result in Lowest September Inflows on Record.” October 4, 2012. Available at http://www.nwd.usace.army.mil/Media/NewsReleases/tabid/1989/Article/4755/continued-drought-conditions-result-in-lowest-september-inflows-on-record.aspx