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, Neb. 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 lower river.
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 Burgdorfer)