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Published May 06, 2012, 03:14 PM

North Dakota: Feds need to speed Missouri River Decision

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Excess water that caused record flooding and misery in North Dakota last year has helped slake growing water demands from the state's booming oil patch.

By: JAMES MacPHERSON, Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Excess water that caused record flooding and misery in North Dakota last year has helped slake growing water demands from the state's booming oil patch.

But state officials don't expect the surplus to last long and want drillers and other users to be able to tap water immediately — and at no cost — from North Dakota's Lake Sakakawea, the largest of the six reservoirs on the Missouri River.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages dams and reservoirs along the 2,341-mile river, wants to charge water users for surplus water drawn from the big lake, a proposal that is being challenged by state officials.

After rounds of public comments, a decision by the corps has languished for more than a year.

Corps spokesman Larry Janis said Jo-Ellen Darcy, the assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, is still reviewing the comments.

"A lot of people provided comments," Janis said. "She wants to make sure she has a chance to consider those ... It's not a decision she'll make quickly."

Gov. Jack Dalrymple, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Tex Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes, have promised a legal fight if the corps indeed decides to charge users for surplus lake-drawn water.

Fresh water is needed by the oil industry in North Dakota for hydraulic fracturing, a process that uses pressurized fluid and sand to break open oil-bearing rock 2 miles underground.

Bob Shaver, the state Water Commission's water appropriation director, said enough water is available now to the oil industry in western North Dakota, thanks to excessive moisture in 2011.

"We're meeting the needs right now because Mother Nature more than cooperated last year," he said. "But as things get back to normal, there will be a lot less water lying around on the landscape."

North Dakota's oil industry used 9,300 acre-feet of water last year, up from 5,700 in 2010, Shaver said. An acre-foot is the amount of water covering an acre, one foot deep.

Lynn Helms, director of the state Department of Mineral Resources, said wells drilled in North Dakota's oil patch each use an average of 3 million gallons of water.

Drilling activity is at record levels, with an estimated 2,200 wells to come on line this year, up 10 percent from the record set last year, Helms said.

The industry is slowed for now by the lack of infrastructure in the oil patch and a shortage of crews to perform hydraulic fracturing. Helms expects both of those problems to be cured by year's end.

Without water from Lake Sakakawea, oil companies will have to move water by truck from locations beyond western North Dakota, impacting traffic, roads and air quality.

"Our concern is that within a few months we're going to see a real crunch for water," Helms said. "We need some action by the Corps of Engineers."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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