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Lake Sakakawea, North Dakota Water From Missouri River Can Be Used For Drilling, Feds Say

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BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Temporary, no-cost permits to tap surplus water from North Dakota's Lake Sakakawea will be issued to oil drillers and other industrial users until a national policy can be developed on how much, if anything, to charge, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Wednesday.

North Dakota Sens. Kent Conrad and John Hoeven, Gov. Jack Dalrymple and state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem released statements saying the state will fight any attempt by the federal government to charge water users in the future.

North Dakota's booming oil patch in the western part of the state has brought big demands for water. To keep pace with escalating production, state and oil industry officials want to draw water from Lake Sakakawea, the largest of the six reservoirs on the Missouri River. One well in North Dakota's rich Bakken formation can use up to 3 million gallons of water during hydraulic fracturing, a process that uses pressurized fluid and sand to break open oil-bearing rock 2 miles underground.

State officials said Jo-Ellen Darcy, the assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, has promised that water users won't be charged while the corps develops a national surplus water policy, a process that could take 1 ½ years.

That process will determine "if or what pricing would be appropriate," said Larry Janis, a corps spokesman in Omaha, Neb.

"Water users with pending permits will now have access to the river," Dalrymple said in a statement late Tuesday. "The U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Army has assured us they will begin issuing permits without any further unnecessary delay."

About 100,000 acre feet of water will be available from Lake Sakakawea in the interim, an amount that's expected to satiate the state's immediate needs, officials said. An acre-foot is the amount of water covering an acre, one foot deep.

The corps began blocking access to Missouri River water in North Dakota in May 2010. A study at that time proposed charging for water to recover costs for building the Garrison Dam, which formed Lake Sakakawea. The dam was built in the early 1950s and the lake divided the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, which is home to the Three Affiliated Tribes.

North Dakota officials said the state was promised the ability to use Missouri River water for municipal, industrial and irrigation uses in exchange for sacrificing of 550,000 acres of prime farmland to create the lake.

Stenehjem, the state's attorney general, North Dakota also is guaranteed the use of navigable waterways from existing federal law and the state's constitution.

The state will "vigorously defend" its legal right to the Missouri River water, he said.

North Dakota is entitled to some 25 million acre feet of water annually from the river, Stenehjem said. That's enough, he said, "for our uses and to supply water for downstream states."

Bismarck-based Basin Bismarck-based Basin Electric Power Cooperative, which owns two coal-fired power plants, is the only industrial water user of the Missouri River at present in North Dakota, the corps said. The utility, which pays a fee for water usage, won the right to use Missouri River water though a lawsuit some 30 years ago.

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