* Westerners oppose draining of reservoirs
* Midwesterners say Mississippi River needs water
* Montana's Schweitzer: Drain your own lakes
By Charles Abbott
WASHINGTON, Dec 5 Montana Governor Brian
Schweitzer, a flamboyant westerner, said he has the law and
common sense on his side to prevent a draw-down of Missouri
River reservoirs to benefit barge traffic half a continent away.
Farm groups and processors in the U.S. Midwest claim the
water from the Missouri River is vital to replenish the
drought-shrunk Mississippi River, the premiere waterway of the
central states. Shippers say low water on the Mississippi will
make it nearly impossible to move crops to export markets at the
Gulf Of Mexico.
Water levels are forecast to drop to near-historic lows by
mid-December on the "middle river" - the stretch from St Louis
to Cairo, Illinois. The Missouri flows into the Mississippi just
north of St. Louis.
More than 100 million tons of cargo, half of it corn and
soybeans, float through that stretch of river annually.
While Midwesterners, including lawmakers, and a number of
farm groups, have urged President Barack Obama to order an
emergency release to boost water volume on the Mississippi,
Schweitzer, three other "upstream" governors and a dozen allies
in Congress argue that such a move would be unlawful and
short-sighted during a drought.
The Obama administration has not responded yet in the tug of
war between regions.
"YOU BETTER HOLD ON TO YOUR HAT"
"You can barely trust the weatherman; when you have
politicians predicting the weather, you better hold on to your
hat," said Schweitzer during a telephone interview with Reuters
on Wednesday. "I would appeal to the rule of law and to common
sense" to block unmerited releases of water, he said.
The six "main stem" reservoirs on the upper Missouri were at
85 percent of desired capacity on Wednesday. These bodies of
water are in Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.
The operator of the reservoirs, the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers, is reducing discharges from the Gavins Point Dam, the
"spigot" at the bottom of the reservoir chain on the
Nebraska/South Dakota border, to 12,000 cubic feet per second to
conserve water. The usual winter flow is 17,000 cubic feet.
"We are in a severe drought," said Jody Farhat, chief of the
Corps' reservoir control center for the Missouri River basin in
Omaha, Nebraska. She said the reservoir system is required to
hold enough water to withstand 12 years of drought.
If the weather remains dry, the Corps of Engineers would
likely decrease the amount of water released during the first
half of the 2013 navigation season. A decision will be made
after March 15.
DRAIN LAKE OF THE OZARKS INSTEAD
Schweitzer and the governors of North Dakota, South Dakota
and Kansas said in letters sent last week to the President that
it would be illegal to release Missouri River water to boost
Mississippi River levels. They also said it would harm
communities and businesses in their states, which are also
suffering overwhelmingly from the effects of drought.
Besides providing water for irrigation, drinking water and
industrial uses, the reservoirs are a centerpiece for tourism.
Water recreation and fishing are "a huge industry" in South
Dakota, said an aide to Gov. Dennis Daugaard. Fishing and
boating would suffer if reservoir levels drop markedly.
A rancher and businessman, Schweitzer suggested that
Midwesterners could use the serpentine Lake of the Ozarks, a
vacation mecca in central Missouri, to water the Mississippi. It
is one of the largest manmade lakes in the country.
"Stand along your own shorelines and open those flood gates.
You go first," said Schweitzer, who once used a branding iron to
set fire to proposed legislation in an emphatic 2011 veto.
Nearing the end of his second term in office, Schweitzer has
been mentioned as a long-shot possibility for the Democratic
nomination for president in 2016.
DROUGHT REDUCES RUNOFF INTO RESERVOIRS
The navigation season on the upper Mississippi, where a
series of locks and dams helps maintain water level, closed for
winter on Monday. Shipping runs year-round on the middle and
Runoff in the upper Missouri River basin was 20 percent
below normal this year due to drought. On Nov. 1, water in the
six reservoirs was 8 percent below average and falling.
The Missouri River reservoirs, built from the 1930s to the
1960s, form the largest U.S. reservoir system.
The Corps of Engineers says it was given eight purposes for
operation of the system, from flood control and navigation to
recreation, water supply and fish and wildlife, to benefit the
Missouri basin. Supporting barge movement on the Mississippi
River was not one of them.
"The short answer is, we're not authorized to," said Farhat.
(Reporting By Charles Abbott; Editing by Ros Krasny and Bob