Saturday, October 25, 2014
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Drought hurts fishing industry along the Missouri River
Larger view
Officials didn't expect the Sutton's Bay boat ramp to open at all this year, and they don't expect it to stay open very long. Lake Oahe is expected to drop another six to 10 feet by the end of August. (MPR Photo/Cara Hetland)
For the past five years, part of the Dakotas and Montana have been in a drought. As a result, the largest reservoirs on the Missouri River are about 30 feet below normal. Just five years ago, Lake Oahe was a massive pool of water that stretched from a dam near South Dakota's state capitol in Pierre all the way to Bismarck, North Dakota. Now, the north end of the lake stops 70 miles short of where it used to be.

But Lake Oahe is still a hot spot for walleye and salmon. While anglers reap the benefits of the low water, many businesses and resorts are losing money. And the state is spending millions to keep access to the river open.

Lake Oahe, S.D. — The Missouri River is the nation's longest running river, flowing from Montana to the Mississippi River in Missouri. There are five earthen dams and reservoirs in North and South Dakota. They were designed in the 1940s to control flooding and provide water deep enough for navigation downstream.

One of the unexpected benefits of the reservoir system is the creation of lakes for fishing and recreation. Upstream states like North and South Dakota rely on fishing as a revenue generator.

John Brakss relies on it for his livelihood. He owns Spring Creek Resort on Lake Oahe. When he looks out of his restaurant window, he sees an abandoned gas pump a few yards away, surrounded by rocks and weeds. The water is a good 100 yards away.

"That used to be docks," says Brakss. "When the lake is full the water is up to the gas pump."

Now when you look out the window, you see a steep rocky bank with green vegetation, as long as a football field all the way down to the water.

In the 22 years Brakss has owned the resort he's seen his share of what he calls cycles on the river. He's seen floods and he's seen drought. But the lake has never been this low, and that low water means less business for Brakss.

Normally, 80 boats can dock in his bay for a fee. Now he only has room for 30. He says for him the worst part of the drought is the publicity, because it keeps people away from his bar and general store.

"The fishing is great. (The) Game, Fish and Parks (Department) has done a wonderful job of providing access as the water went down," says Brakss. "Frankly, you've got less water to have the fish hide, so you actually have an advantage. The numbers are great right now and the fishing is wonderful."

Even though the fishing is great, it's getting harder and harder for anglers to get to the water. Only about half of the 32 boat ramps on Lake Oahe are open. Over the past three years, South Dakota's Game, Fish and Parks Department spent more than $3 million extending boat ramps to meet the water's edge. The state has another $1 million in its budget this year.

Bush's Landing is another popular place to launch a boat, and it's just a few miles upstream from the Spring Creek Resort. It looks like an unfinished construction site. As the water levels dropped, dirt roads and parking pads had to be extended as the water levels dropped. Now the boat docks are a quarter mile further out.

South Dakota's Missouri River coordinator, Wayne Nelson-Stastny, says they're planning on building another half-mile of roadway, because by August water levels on Lake Oahe will drop another six to 10 feet.

Nelson-Stastny is amazed at the number of anglers from a handful of states here to launch on a windy weekday morning.

"Roughly 80 to 100 vehicles with their boat out on the lake at that one boat ramp," estimates Nelson-Stastny. "So it does show you how important recreation is to this area, and what it means to these small communities along the Missouri River reservoirs."

A few miles farther is Sutton's Bay. Few people know this ramp is open. Nelson-Stastny says spring rains have brought the lake level up enough for it to stay in service.

"I don't think it'll be in service too long. But it's nice to take the pressure off of places like Bush's, to have Sutton's in service," says Nelson-Stastny.

Especially when the walleye are biting. Anglers are averaging one-and-a-half to three-pound walleye. Sutton's Bay is one of the rockier bays along Oahe. Nelson-Stastny remembers when he could fish from shore just four years ago.

"What normally would have been underwater, now you're looking down about 20 feet at the point where you put your boat in. You used to be able to cast your jigs out over where some cottonwood saplings are now growing, and catch walleyes. Now it's all dry land," says Nelson-Stastny.

But that won't last forever. Nelson-Stastny says one day the cottonwood saplings will be underwater, when Lake Oahe fills up. He says all that submerged vegetation will make good hiding spots for walleye.

A buddy picks up Nelson-Stastny with his boat for a little fishing. When he stopped earlier to get bait, he saw a line of 45 boats waiting to launch. The two fish for several hours and catch four walleye.

The view from the water is startling. Erosion is cutting into the banks that once were underwater.

Nelson-Stastny says there are some ramps and resorts that have been closed for three years. In the 1990s when the lake was full, he says Lake Oahe generated about $20 million in economic impact. Now that's dropped to about $8 million.

That's money South Dakota wants to keep, and is willing to fight for.

The battle over Missouri River water is between upstream and downstream states, and has been going on for decades. "Traditionally the competing interests are in the scope of navigation versus recreation," says Garland Erbele, chief engineer of the water rights program for the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources. "While that's certainly part of it, it's a lot bigger than that too."

"There are all kinds of needs for that water," says Erbele. "You've got power plants downstream that need the water for cooling. You have navigation, which is a huge consumer of water. But you can't overlook the fact we've also had a drought which greatly reduces runoff into the reservoir."

Erbele says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finally has a plan in place to manage water levels for all the needs in all conditions. It took 20 years to write it. He says had the plan been in place 10 years ago, Lake Oahe would not be this low today.

"As it turned out, we were five years into a drought before we started implementing any conservation at all," says Erbele. "So we're not seeing the benefits of it like we normally would, if we started out at the beginning of the drought."

Erbele says the vision for the Missouri River is changing because more and more communities are using the river for its scenic beauty and recreation. He says downstream communities are closing barge docks and developing riverfront property. Erbele says many communities are just beginning to see the economic benefits of recreation along the Missouri River.

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