Missouri River Hydropower – Our Largest Renewable Resource

The power produced at at federal projects on the Missouri River is our largest, most reliable and least cost renewable resource. This system is operated through the coordinated efforts of three federal agencies – The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR), The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE), and the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA). There is a story here that is worth telling. In this first of three blogs, we’ll tell the story of this very valuable resource for our region.  Credit to USBR for their report on the Pick Sloan Plan.

We’ll start with some basic geography of the Missouri River basin.

Click for enlarged view. Photo courtesy U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Reclamation.

The Missouri River is about 2,540 miles long, making it the longest river in the United States. The source of the Missouri River is the point in the Basin, farthest in water miles, from the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. That place is Brower’s Spring in southwest Montana near the Idaho border. It flows into Hellroaring Creek, then into Red Rock River, the Beaverhead River, which joins the Bighole River, and finally into the Jefferson River which joins the with the Madison River at Three Forks to form the Missouri. The Gallatin River flows into the Missouri River about 100 yards downstream. The Gallatin was named for Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of the Treasury.

The river basin covers around 528,000 square miles, or about one sixth of the lower 48 states. It includes all of Nebraska, most of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, and Wyoming; as well as parts of Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, and Missouri, and a small part of Canada. Although it is the longest river, and the Basin is the largest, it has one of the lowest annual yields of water.

The combination of low water yield and large land area, along with other issues, led to conflicts over river use. Those conflicts continue to this day. The river crosses the 98th meridian near Yankton, South Dakota. This is the roughly the dividing line between the arid and humid (more than 20 inches of rain per year) parts of the Basin. This put USBR and the COE in direct competition. USBR’s mission primarily deals with water scarcity, or irrigation, while the COE’s mission traditionally deals with water abundance, flood control and navigation. [Insert Picture Here]

In 1824, the Supreme Court ruled that since navigation involved commerce, the Federal government had the authority not only to control navigable waterways, but also non-navigable tributaries, if the navigable capacity of the waterway was affected by the tributary. In the same year, Congress authorized the COE to aid in navigation on the nation’s waterways.

The Missouri River was considered a potentially great transportation corridor, and navigation was always promoted as a primary use. However, since it was so treacherous, the river became known as the “Graveyard of Steamboats.” The COE began “snagging: operations (the removal of trees and branches in the river) in 1838.

Years later in 1866, the stage was being set for conflict when Congress enacted “prior appropriation” legislation. This legislation recognized that beneficial uses such as agriculture, mining, and manufacturing, were entitled to protection under conditions that prevailed in the arid parts of the river basin.

After the federal Reclamation Act was passed by Congress in 1902, USBR built a number of irrigation projects in the Basin. USBR focused on irrigation to meet the needs of the upper basin states –  the Dakotas and Montana.

At the same time, the COE was trying to provide navigation on the Missouri River between Sioux City, Iowa and the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi near St. Louis, Missouri. The original plan was to have a 200 foot wide and 6 foot deep channel on that stretch of the river.

Congress authorized the  COE to do comprehensive river basin studies, which became known as “308” reports. The “308 Report” for the Missouri River Basin was completed in 1934. It was a 1,200 page study of the entire watershed that identified navigation, flood control, hydropower, and irrigation projects.

Before the “308 Report” was completed, the COE began construction of Fort Peck Dam on the Missouri in Montana. Construction lasted from 1933 through 1940. Its primary purpose was navigation, to provide the minimum flow in the main stem of the Missouri River below Sioux City, Iowa for a channel that would be 6 foot deep and 200 foot wide. It provided flood control benefits and was also a jobs program, providing much needed employment during the Depression.

We’ll pick-up the development and passage of the Pick Sloan Plan in part two of the story of our region’s great water and power asset.

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