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Little Missouri River commission meets for first time in 10 years to consider low flows

The Little Missouri River is pictured in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park earlier this summer. April Baumgarten / Forum News Service

DICKINSON, N.D. — It's been 10 years since the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission (LMSRC) met, but as the drought drinks deep from its flows, Gov. Doug Burgum has sought to bring the commission back to solve troubles facing the waterway.

The stated purpose of the commission is to "preserve the Little Missouri River as nearly as possible in its present state, which shall mean that the river will be maintained in a free-flowing natural condition."

Among the items brought to the commission Wednesday night, Aug. 9, in Dickinson was discussion of a report on Little Missouri River water permits, and the condition of its flows as a new policy for temporary industrial use permits is considered.

The river's condition isn't great, and a new policy will take time to develop, officials said.

"I'm going to talk a bit about flows in the river," Jon Patch, director of water appropriations for the North Dakota State Water Commission, said as he presented a series graphs that showed flow levels of the river in the past 90 days compared to the median.

"So, back in May we were pretty close to the median and then we started to see a pretty strong departure ... things were pretty dry, and we did actually dip below the 30 cfs (cubic feet per second) minimum flow condition that we'd placed out there ... to suspend temporary permits that were on the main stem of the Little Missouri downstream of the Long X Bridge."

That suspension went into effect June 28. All permit owners were notified that they had to suspend pumping, Patch said. Flow levels have since risen to acceptable levels and the flow today at Long X is slightly less than 50 cfs, he said.

By order of the governor, all temporary industrial permits upstream of the Long X Bridge have been suspended until a new policy is decided, which is part of the reason why the commission met. A temporary policy established by the office of the state engineer is in place until a new policy is adopted by the State Water Commission based on the input of the LMSRC.

"I'm going to ask that we ... spend some time looking at the interim policy that we developed," said State Engineer Garland Erbele, interim chairman for the LMSRC. He added that in the meantime, commissioners should consult with residents of their respective counties. The next meeting of the LMSRC has been scheduled for October.

There are 42 active temporary-use permits concentrated on the northern, downstream end of the river. There are roughly 24 pending applications, including five on the main stem between Medora and the Long X Bridge, Patch said. He said these are all surface-water applications.

The Medora span of the river is in even more dire straits than Long X, with Patch showing images of an anemic stretch of water choked by sandbars, driving home how the drought has affected the river. The flow of the river in the Medora region is a bit over 5 cfs, which Patch described as "very low flow." For comparison, in mid-July the flow was 17 cfs, he said.

Based upon the median average, the cubic feet per second flow of the Medora region should have been well over 100 for much of June and July, dropping a bit below that for August.

"We do have seasonal median and mean flows that occur, so you're going to have higher flows in the springtime and then they dip off in the fall," Patch said. "But yes, flows have been much higher than what we're seeing now."

Temporary permits can by law last no longer than 12 months, but Patch said the permits are usually much shorter than that.

"We tailor them to the need of the applicant," he said. "They're usually three- to six-month permits in length."

All of the permits and documentation the State Water Commission issues are on its website.

Patch took questions from the commission and members of the public. He said the condition of the river and its low flows are almost entirely drought-related, and not due to human action.

The accepted uses for the Little Missouri River include agricultural irrigation, and there are presently 40 active irrigation water permits which on average can sustain 100 acres. Those irrigation permits have been affected by the low flow.

"With low flows in the river, there are certainly adjustments to pumping schedules," Jessie Wald, public information officer for the state water commissioner, stated in an email follow-up to the meeting. "Some of the permits are conditioned to cease pumping when flow(s) reach a certain minimum threshold."

As dramatic as these drops in flow are, they are not all-time lows. Wald, in the same email, explained:

"The flows in the river are lower than normal but are not at (the) period of record lows. For instance, for today's date (Aug. 10), the period of record low (0.03 cfs) occurred in 2003 at the Medora gage. The flow is currently about 8 cfs at that site."

For this same date, the median flow at Medora is 79 cfs.