JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — A Simple Request To The Governor: Let’s Get Technical

Dear Gov. Burgum,

I am writing to you today about transparency. Transparency in government. Transparency in North Dakota government. Transparency in North Dakota government as it relates to our environment and environmental protection. You’ve said often you believe in transparency. Here’s a chance to prove it.

You’re a new governor this year, and you come from the world of high technology. You’ve got a couple of agencies that are operating at low technology. I’d like you to get them fixed. Because I’m not sure they aren’t trying to hide something from us by keeping their technology low. So I’m making two requests, Governor, to do a little technology upgrade.

The first is at the State Health Department. My friend, Darrell Dorgan, has been regularly critical of them for being too interested in the welfare of industry (read: Big Oil), at the expense of the environment. If you look at some of the stuff they do, you might think that’s the case. I’ve thought for a long time there are good people there who were being leaned on by Govs. Hoeven and Dalrymple to be friendly to Big Oil because that industry, with its boom, was punching their meal tickets during much of their administrations.

The jury’s still out on you, Doug Burgum. Will you let this agency operate as it should? Officially, they are our state’s representatives and enforcers for the United States Environmental Protection Agency, charged with enforcing federal and state environmental regulations. But those regulations sometimes get in the way of the oil industry, and Hoeven and Dalrymple didn’t like that. I don’t know about you yet, Governor. You’re of their political party, but I don’t know if you’re of their ilk. I’ll know better if you respond to my two technology upgrade requests.

Here’s the first one.

The Health Department maintains a website database of what they call “Oilfield Environmental Incidents” in the oil patch. That’s bureaucratese for “spills.” It’s a big database, with records of more than 10,500 spills since Jan. 1, 2008. Quick math — an average of a little over a thousand spills a year for the last 10 years. Here’s the link to the website, so you can take a look for yourself.

If you go there, you’ll see a menu that lets you click on spills in the past 12 months, or spills occurring before that. If you go to one of those databases, you can click on the categories at the top, like the amount of oil spilled in each incident, or the amount of saltwater spilled, from the biggest spills to the smallest (you might have to click twice — they’re pretty cagey). You can click on the county link and find out how many of those incidents occurred in Billings County, or Williams County.

But what you can’t find out is how many of those spills were committed by a particular company. Because there’s no category for that. In order to find out who committed each spill, you have to click on every one of the 10,500 incident reports to find out what company is responsible for each spill.

I know from experience, for example, that there are a couple of companies, Oasis and Denbury, which have been particularly bad violators. In fact, I once wrote on this blog that it was time to kick Denbury out of the state because it was so bad and careless. That was four years ago — Denbury is still here. Its most recent spill was Oct. 5 of this year, when oil and saltwater spilled onto a pasture near Bowman. Denbury still shows up in the database on a pretty regular basis. But you have to look at every incident report to find it. Eight hundred twenty-three incidents this year. So far.

The thing is, there’s really no way of knowing, without looking at all 10,000 incident reports, who the really bad operators are. And that’s the way the industry wants it. Finding out that Denbury or Oasis or Continental (seems to be the most recent bad company) has a hundred or 200 or more spills would just not be good publicity.

And the Health Department has acquiesced to their wishes. Or, more likely, someone in Gov. Hoeven or Gov. Dalrymple’s offices had sent word down to just leave that database the way it is. I talked off the record to a Health Department employee about a year ago and asked about this. He told me they wanted to fix it, and were going to ask for money from the Legislature in 2017 to make the database searchable. Obviously, that didn’t happen.

But now we’ve got a new governor, and he’s a techie! I bet, Governor, if you sent one of your former Microsoft programmers over to the Health Department, they could make that database searchable in 15 minutes. If that’s something you wanted done.

So that’s my first request, Gov. Burgum. Send someone to the Health Department and fix that database. They’re right over there on the second floor of the Judicial Wing of the Capitol Building. Heck, I bet they wouldn’t even have to go over there — they could probably do it from your office. Or from home.

So next time I write a story reporting that Belle Fourche Pipeline Co. is still trying to clean up its 175,000 gallon spill into Ash Coulee Creek last December, I can also find out how many other spills it made since then. Oops, bad example. That one’s not in the database.

See, sometimes whoever happens to be in charge at the moment in the Health Department will, instead of creating an incident report in the oilfield spills database for a particularly egregious spill, like the Ash Coulee one last winter, they’ll instead put it over into a DIFFERENT database, called “General Environmental Incidents.”

I’ve never been able to figure out why they did that for Ash Coulee because it was surely an “Oilfield Environmental Incident,” just like the one by Tesoro a couple of years ago, which spilled 20,600 barrels — 865,000 gallons — up in Mountrail County. The only thing I can figure out is that Tesoro only reported it spilled 750 barrels, so it got listed as an oilfield incident, until a Health Department official discovered two months later that it was really more than 20,000 barrels. Oops. I guess 750 barrel spills get logged in as oilfield incidents, and spills like the Ash Coulee one, at 4,200 barrels, don’t.

It sure is harder to keep track of those things when you have to look through different databases. Oh, yeah. I get it.

Anyway, Gov. Burgum, please put your programmer to work. Oh, and there’s one more thing I’d like you to take care of, while you’ve got your programmer available. That’s over at the State Water Commission website.

Since you’ve just signed a bill allowing industrial use of water from the Little Missouri State Scenic River (if you haven’t already done so, you could read Amy Dalrymple’s (no relation to Jack) story about this in the Bismarck Tribune by clicking here), and because there are a lot of us who love that river and are concerned about it, we would kind of like to be able to keep track of how many water permits are being issued to take fracking water from the river, and where they are, and how much water they are taking.

Well, the Water Commission, like the Health Department, also maintains a database on its website, called “Water Permits Database” (you can find it here — down toward the bottom of the page), and, in theory, you could get that information from that database. Except you can’t. Because those water permits are not in the database. I know because I know some of the people and companies who have been issued water permits, and they are not in the database.

Oh, the Water Commission does have a double-secret way to find out who has industrial water permits, but you have to be a pretty good detective to find it. Well, I did a little detective work, with some urging from Jan Swenson, executive director of Badlands Conservation Alliance, who kept telling me, “They don’t put it in the database, but it’s on the site, you just have to learn how to use the maps.”

Learn how to use the maps. Old dog, new trick. But I did it. It took me a few hours because it is well-hidden, so if you are nosy like me, I’m just going to give you a direct link (sort of) to go and look. Click here, and then go down to the bottom of the page and click on the artwork that says “Water Depots.” (Don’t click on the link that says Water Permits — you won’t find all the Little Missouri water permits there — only some of them.)

Once you’ve clicked on Water Depots, you have to figure out how to use the maps and the embedded database in them. First, you take a tutorial and learn to click on the little bar on the side of the page that says, “Show layers,” and then about half an hour or so later, you’ll find, for example, that a company named Streamline Water Services LLC has a permit to draw 233 million gallons of water (yes, you read that right) from the Little Missouri State Scenic River, on land owned by a rancher named Joe Schettler, between last December and next August. Your state engineer, Governor, has authorized one company to take more than 200 million gallons of water from the Little Missouri State Scenic River. Is there even that much water in the river, ever? Geez.

Joe Schettler’s Water Depot, in the center of the photo, hard against the Little Missouri State Scenic River at the top of the photo, courtesy of Google Earth. From here, the big trucks take water to the fracking sites.
Joe Schettler’s Water Depot, in the center of the photo, hard against the Little Missouri State Scenic River at the top of the photo, courtesy of Google Earth. From here, the big trucks take water to the fracking sites.

Streamline has built a big water depot on Schettler’s land, alongside the Little Missouri. Joe also just happens to be Dunn County’s representative on the Little Missouri State Scenic River Commission. I’m not sure if Schettler is a partner in the company, but one way or another, he’s making a lot of money from that water, which he gets pretty much for free — I think the water permit costs a couple hundred dollars.

But anyway, back to matters at hand. It would be pretty easy, Governor, for your Microsoft programmer to run those permits hidden on the map pages into the Water Permit Database, so we could keep track of them, instead of having to wander around that incredibly confusing map system. (I’m guessing, by the way, that the engineers over at the Water Commission are pretty disappointed that an English major like me could figure out how to get this information.)

So that’s my second request, Governor. As soon as you’ve got that Health Department database cleaned up, how about fixing the Water Commission database, too?

Thanks, in advance.

Jim

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Maybe The Governor Shouldn’t Send Engineers To Represent Him

“Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it,” the wise man said. And you might not like what you get, I might add.

That’s what I was thinking about four hours into last week’s second meeting of the newly reconstituted Little Missouri Scenic River Commission. I’ve been harping for a couple of years on the idea of bringing back what was supposed to be a watchdog group overseeing what goes on in the Valley of the Little Missouri River during an oil boom.

It started with a letter from Jan Swenson, executive director of Badlands Conservation Alliance, to the North Dakota DOT’s Matt Linneman in 2015, regarding the construction of a new bridge over the Little Missouri Scenic River on U.S. Highway 85. Jan reminded us “The Little Missouri River was established as a N.D. State Scenic River in 1975 by the Little Missouri State Scenic River Act.

The act’s Intent reads: “The purpose of this chapter shall be 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, and to establish a Little Missouri River Commission. The stated duty of the Commission is to maintain the scenic, historic and recreational qualities of the Little Missouri River and its tributary streams.”

When I read that, I went looking in the North Dakota Century Code for Section 61-29, Little Missouri State Scenic River Act. I had a foggy memory of a company called Tenneco wanting to build a coal gasification plant in the Bad Lands and to dam up a tributary of the Little Missouri to provide water for the plant, and of the North Dakota Legislature responding by passing the Scenic River Act in 1975, sending Tenneco home with its tail between its legs. The state had effectively said “No thanks, Tenneco, put your plant somewhere else.” Can you imagine anyone in state government using those words today? Hah.

Well, long story short, I wrote a bunch of articles about it, Doug Burgum got elected governor, I lobbied him through his chief of staff, and he reinstated the commission, directing the six Bad Lands counties to appoint new members, and now they’ve had two meetings. And accomplished nothing.

Actually, as far as the last meeting goes, accomplishing nothing is a good thing. They could have done something bad.

A bit of background. For the first 42 years of its existence, Section 61-29, the State Scenic River Act, prohibited the State Water Commission from issuing Little Missouri water permits for industrial use (read: fracking oil wells). Little Missouri River water could only be used for agriculture and recreation. Made sense. But the 2017 Legislature changed that, to allow Little Missouri water to be used for fracking.

Turns out the Legislature was only legalizing something that had been going on for 30 years or so. See, the Water Commission staff had been ignoring the law (it claimed it didn’t know about it, a story I bought until just a few days ago — more about that on another day) and the commission had issued more than 600 industrial water use permits from the Little Missouri, all in violation of the State Scenic River Act.

What the Legislature did was make legal what had been going on for decades — at the request of the Water Commission engineers who had been breaking the law. Burgum signed the bill. But in either a show of uncertainty, or just a show, he slapped a moratorium on that industrial use. That was in May of this year, just after he signed the bill. But then only a month later, he steered the State Water Commission, which he chairs, into lifting the moratorium. But in doing that, he said this was just going to be an “interim policy” because he wanted the newly appointed Scenic River Commission to “weigh in” on that action, to let him know how it felt about industrial use of Little Missouri River water. You still with me here?

Meanwhile, while we’re waiting for that commission to “weigh in,” permits for use of Little Missouri River water for fracking are being issued.

So at this week’s Scenic River Commission meeting, Water Commission engineer Jon Patch, the man who issues water permits (including those 600 illegal ones) brought the interim policy to the commission and spent two hours pleading with commission members to ratify it. Commissioners were skeptical, which in my mind, was “weighing in.”

In fact, when a motion was made by one commission member to approve the policy, it died for lack of a second. Only one of the nine commission members wanted to approve it. When newly elected commission chairman Joe Schettler announced the motion had died for lack of a second, there was a stunned silence at the commission table and among the 50 or so audience members.

Patch had just spent two hours fending off comments from audience members in opposition to industrial use of Little Missouri River water for fracking and pleading with some skeptical commission members, going on and on about how it would keep trucks off the road, making the roads safer and eliminating dust, although with no mention of how the oil companies were going to get the water from the river to their oil wells.

Patch brought along a power point slide to that effect, (as you can see, visible and audible disruption of the Little Missouri River Valley is not really a problem!), and when Jan Swenson rose from the audience to make a well-reasoned plea to delay action on approving the policy, Patch rudely put the slide up on the screen behind her for the audience to see. Frankly, I was surprised that no one booed, but audience members apparently had better manners than Patch.

Well, nether the audience members nor the commissioners were stupid enough to buy Patch’s argument. Finally, in an ironic twist, commission members and State Engineer Garland Erbele, Patch’s boss, made a motion to postpone action on the policy, a motion that was quickly seconded and passed unanimously. Erbele’s motion staved off further embarrassment for his staff engineer, who had just wasted two hours of everyone’s time, and also staved off the possibility of a motion to reject the policy, which likely would have gotten a second, and maybe would have passed.

By this time, the meeting, which had been billed as a two-hour gathering, was more than three hours old, and it took another hour and a half to finish, thanks to some silliness on Erbele’s part (or more likely his staff).

See, when Erbele’s staff was putting together the agenda for the meeting, there was really only one item to discuss — approving Patch’s policy — so to fill up the two hours, whoever did the agenda, with Erbele’s approval, had scheduled a bunch of bureaucrats to brief the commission members on some pretty much irrelevant stuff.

First, an assistant attorney general spent about half an hour, with a fancy power point presentation, going painfully through all the nuances of the state’s open meetings law, including changes made by the 2017 Legislature, when all she really had to do was say, “Hey, you guys, all your meetings are open to the public, and all minutes of your meetings are available to anyone who wants to read them.”

Then another engineer, this one from the Department of Transportation, repeated everything he had said at the group’s August meeting about the proposed new bridge over the Little Missouri on Highway 85, beside the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

It’s important for the commission to “weigh in” on that one, too, but there was no new news at this meeting, just a rehash of the previous meeting. The commission might decide to weigh in after it sees the Environmental Impact Statement in a couple of months. This presentation, and its power point slides, could have waited until then.

And then a fisheries expert from the state Game and Fish Department got out his power point slides and talked for a long time about “endangered” fish in the Little Missouri. Duh. He could have just said, “There are no fish in the Little Missouri because it’s only 6 inches deep in most places in the summer and it freezes to the bottom in winter.” Yeah, that might endanger the fish.

It was a really bad miscalculation on the part of the Water Commission staff, and it is time for Parks Director Melissa Baker to wrest control of this board from the engineers, the way three Parks directors — Doug Eiken, Bob Horne and Gary Leppart — before her did. There were no meetings during the most recent Parks Director Mark Zimmerman’s term, and only one or two during his predecessor Doug Prchal’s term.

But give those ranchers on the commission credit — they stuck it out for 4½ hours, even though there were a hundred things they could do at home, and most of them just wanted to get into the bar for a quick Jack and Coke before heading back to the ranch.

The three Bismarck bureaucrats on the commission — Erbele, Baker and Dave Glatt from the Health Department — are probably used to long government meetings, but I bet two of them called Erbele the next day and said, “No more of that.” The meeting, which had begun at 4 p.m. Bismarck time, ended at 8:30 p.m., and they still had to drive home from Dickinson.

Here’s the bottom line: Gov., Burgum wants the Little Missouri River Commission, whose members are mostly Little Missouri River Valley ranchers, to tell him how they feel about the interim policy adopted by the State Water Commission, which allows temporary industrial water permits to be issued to draw water from the Little Missouri river for fracking. A reasonable approach by the governor. It might have been a good thing for the governor to come to the meeting, sit down with the commissioners and talk about it. That’s the way to find out how the Commission members feel.

Instead, he had his state engineer bring in one of his staff who, frankly, came off as a bit of a schoolyard bully, with a statement, all written up, and just asked them to approve it. It read:

“The Little Missouri River Commission has received and considered Temporary Water Permits Revised Interim Policy in the Little Missouri River Basin developed by the office of the State Engineer and presented to it at the August 19, 2017 meeting. The Little Missouri River Commission concurs with the policy and recommends that the State Water Commission adopt it as a permanent policy of the State Water Commission and the State Engineer.”

The Commission said no, we’re not approving that. At least not today.

Well, good for them. Meanwhile, the “interim” policy continues to allow issuance of fracking water permits from the Little Missouri. I don’t know if that’s what the governor wants. But it’s what he’s got, without the blessing of those who matter most — the ranchers in the Little Missouri River Valley. I’m not sure what will happen if the Scenic River Commission says “No” to the governor. Will he back off on issuing fracking permits?

There’ll be another meeting of the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission in a couple of months. Maybe commissioner will discuss the policy then. Or maybe next time the governor, if he really does want their input, will come and sit down with them ask them what they think. Wouldn’t that be something?

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — The Little Missouri State Scenic River Is In Trouble Again

North Dakota’s Little Missouri State Scenic River lost most of its scenic protection this week when Gov. Doug Burgum reversed course and joined the members of his State Water Commission in opening the entire river to industrial water development.

Last month, Burgum declared upstream areas of the state’s only official State Scenic River — the areas surrounding the three units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park — off-limits to industrial water use and told State Engineer Garland Erbele to “immediately review, modify and make transparent the process and requirements for any future issuance of temporary use permits for nonagricultural uses.” Read: Permits for fracking water.

That came after it was revealed that the Water Commission staff had issued more than 600 illegal industrial water permits and then had state law changed in the waning days of the 2017 Legislature to make such permits legal. The Little Missouri State Scenic River Act, passed by the 1975 Legislature, prohibited the use of Little Missouri water for industrial purposes. The bill passed this year changed that.

Friends of the river urged Burgum to veto the legislation, but he declined, instead issuing his policy of only allowing those permits downstream of the National Park.

In issuing that policy, Burgum said in a letter to me and others:

“As governor, a North Dakota resident and a property owner on the Little Missouri River, protecting our environment and being responsible stewards of our natural resources is a priority for me personally and for our administration.”

Well, so much for “being responsible stewards.” Thursday’s action by the Water Commission took care of that.

Erbele did his “review” and came up with a recommendation 180 degrees from Burgum’s policy, opening up the entire Little Missouri State Scenic River basin to industrial use.

And in a puzzling move, the governor then took that recommendation to the Water Commission this week, instead of acting on it himself, as he had done in declaring his earlier policy.

Even more puzzling, the governor did not question the policy recommendation, and voted to implement it, opening up the entire river to industrial development and leaving friends of the river shaking their heads in wonder — and anger — at his inconsistency.

Now, I suspect that the governor, if questioned, would say he wanted broader input on the policy — input from his State Water Commission members. But the Water Commission only heard one side of the story — the oil industry’s side — at Thursday’s meeting. Opponents of the policy, who wanted to keep industrial development away from our State Scenic River and from the National Park, were not given a chance to speak to the issue.

Several of those opponents sat through Thursday’s marathon session for five hours, waiting for a discussion of the Little Missouri State Scenic River Act, as promised on the Commission’s agenda. But they were caught off guard when a Water Commission staff member presented a recommendation from a list of four options — the three that were not adopted offered some protection for the river — and the Commission adopted the one opening up the river for development after a brief discussion. Only Agriculture Commissioner Douglas Goehring voted against the recommendation, citing concerns over industrial use trumping the needs of farmers and ranchers for irrigation.

I was among those who thought it unusual for a major new state policy to be adopted by an important state agency without any public discussion or any chance for making a case against the policy before a vote was taken. But then, if we can adopt a national health care policy written behind closed doors, I suppose nothing surprises any more.

There was some discussion among Commission members before the vote. Commissioner Harley Swenson of Bismarck questioned the urgency of adopting the policy, given low water levels in the Little Missouri this year and pointing out that there were another 1,000 wells awaiting fracking right now, and perhaps wells along the river could wait until there is more water available and the list of wells awaiting fracking shrinks.

But Commissioner Larry Hanson, also of Bismarck, jumped in on behalf of the oil industry, saying that if they don’t get the water out of the Little Missouri, it’s a “long haul” to have it brought in from somewhere else. Old, white –haired, mostly bald heads around the table nodded in assent, and a vote was taken quickly then to approve the policy.

I point out the white-haired, mostly bald heads because the Water Commission is — or should be — an embarrassment to North Dakota government. All seven appointees to the board are old white males, many well into their 70s, at least one 80. To be fair, all were appointed by governors other than Burgum, and Burgum let four of them go after Thursday’s meeting, opening up their spots to new members he will appoint later this summer. Maybe some women? Maybe some under 70?

In another disappointing moment in the meeting, Burgum made a lame argument about the sequence of events leading up to the change in the law and Thursday’s adoption of a new policy. The illegal permits issued for industrial use had been going on “for decades,” Burgum said, and when a staff member discovered it, they quickly stopped doing it.

“There was no cover-up,” Burgum said. They admitted what they did was wrong, he went on, and brought it to the attention of the Legislature, which fixed the law to make those permits legal now.

Yeah, well, the governor was blowing smoke. Here’s what really happened. More than a year ago, I wrote an article for my blog and for Dakota Country magazine about the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission. During this year’s Legislative Session, a friend of mine, who had read the blog, told me he had heard a mention of the Scenic River Commission on the floor of the Legislature. I went looking, and sure enough, there was an amendment to the State Water Commission budget bill changing the law to allow industrial use of water from the Little Missouri State Scenic River, which had been prohibited since 1975.

I called the Water Commission, got a couple of the staff responsible for issuing water permits on the phone and asked what they were up to. They told me that they never knew about the law, in spite of working there for decades, and that one of their staff had read my story and brought the law to their attention, so they were getting it changed. I asked if they had issued any industrial permits to take water for the oil industry from the river, and one of them blurted out, “Yeah, more than 600.”  I’m guessing those two wished they had been a little more circumspect — I doubt they had told the Legislature that, when they asked to change the law — but it was too late. The cat was out of the bag.

So I wrote a story about it, and, when the bill passed the Legislature, a whole lot of people put heat on the governor to veto it. He didn’t, but he wrote the policy I mentioned earlier about keeping the industrial permits away from the section of the river near the National Park, the policy which was overturned Thursday with the governor’s blessing.

So what’s next?

Right now, the Water Commission staff said Thursday, there are four industrial water permit applications pending, asking for water for oil well fracking from the Little Missouri. I looked them up on the Water Commission’s website. All are between the North and South Units of the National Park, one just a couple of miles from the Elkhorn Ranch. One has asked to start pumping water immediately, one Sept. 1, and two Nov. 1. The permits, once approved, are good for only 12 months, so I’d guess they will be pretty eager to get going.

The oil companies have negotiated what I suspect is a pretty sizeable fee with the ranchers for access to the river on their land and building some kind of water depot into which they’ll pump the water. And then the water trucks — as many as a thousand trucks for each well — will thunder down the hill to the depot and load up and take their water to the well that needs fracking. At least I think that is how it works. I asked the Water Commission today what their intentions are for those four permit applications. Here’s the response:

“They all are in pending status. Based on the decision of the State Water Commission yesterday, they are eligible to be reviewed for approval. If approved conditions will be applied similar to the temporary industrial permits that have been issued downstream of the Long-X bridge. A threshold and maximum pumping rate will be developed for this reach of the river based on the Medora gage.” 

Well, I don’t suppose they’ll be pumping much water from the river right now if they are approved — which they could be. Right now, about noon on June 23, 2017, the river gauge at Medora shows there are just over 3 cubic feet per second (cfs) flowing through Medora. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, which maintains the gauges and keeps the records, that’s the lowest flow for this date in the 60 year history of keeping records on the river. The previous low was just under 8 feet in 2004, and the mean flow is 1150 cfs. In other words, the river is just about dead in its tracks. A severe drought, like the one we’re in right now, will do that. But if it rains …

I’m going to send this article to the governor to let him know how unhappy I am with him. He’s the only one who can protect the Little Missouri State Scenic River valley right now. It wouldn’t hurt if he heard from a few more people, too. It’s pretty easy. Just click here. 

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — No Veto, But No More Industrial Permits, Either — At Least For A While; A Partial Victory For The Little Missouri River

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum may not have been in politics very long, but he has learned the No. 1 rule already: Politics is the art of compromise.

To that end, the governor DID NOT veto the section of North Dakota House Bill 1020, which now that it is law, legalizes the issuance of industrial water permits from the Little Missouri River, a practice which had been going on illegally for many years If you’re not familiar with that, read this).

But in signing the bill into law Tuesday, he issued what Donald Trump might wave in the air as an “executive order,” declaring that no new permits will be issued for nonagricultural use of water (fracking) until new rules are written governing those permits. Those new rules are likely to address use by counties to draw water to keep the dust down on gravel roads but hopefully will ban water for fracking. That’s probably OK. We’ll see what they say.

Generally, this is an acceptable compromise, I think, with those of us concerned about the industrialization of the Little Missouri River — with one exception — and it might turn out to be a pretty big one. The governor’s order applies to the Little Missouri between the South Dakota border and the Long X Bridge over the river at U.S. Highway 85, on the east end of the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park south of Watford City. That’s about 85 percent of the river’s 275-mile length in North Dakota.

But it doesn’t apply to the section of the river between the Long X Bridge and where it flows into Lake Sakakawea, a distance of about 40 miles, mostly in Dunn County, and that last 15 percent is in an area that has been the hot spot of oil activity in the Little Missouri Bad Lands.

My friends who keep their eyes on oil activity in threatened areas tell me there are a number of large applications in process or pending just east of the Long X Bridge, and there’s a lot of Forest Service and BLM land that could be affected if industrial activity is allowed, including some incredible landscapes and wildlife habitat, as well as multigenerational ranches.

So, we will need to keep a close eye on this process, which the governor is going to make easier for us because he has ordered the Water Commission staff to make “the process and requirements for future issuance of temporary use permits for nonagricultural uses” transparent. Believe me, we’ll be taking advantage of that order. Looking at every permit.

Further, he ordered the Water Commission staff to make public all available data on the temporary use permits issued since 1990 and to do a preliminary report on that within 60 days. By July 1. Maybe we’ll read in that about the rancher along the river who sold the water from his temporary use permit to an oil company for more than $700,000 back in 2012 and 2013.

And as for those 600-plus illegal water permits issued by the Water Commission the last few years, the governor explained it this way:

“Recently, a State Water Commission hydrologist uncovered the 1975 law. A decades-long lapse in awareness and in practice has brought us to today.”

Well, OK. It just seems a little strange that the people who are responsible for issuing all the water permits in the state of North Dakota wouldn’t know the law, but that’s their story. I hope they are telling the truth and not covering up for some superior (prior to Burgum, maybe named John or Jack), who told them to go ahead and issue the permits in violation of the law — oil booms and all the money that accompanies them can cause people to do strange things.

But at the same time, if they are telling the truth, it’s kind of disappointing that they wouldn’t know the law they are charged with upholding and enforcing. The engineers responsible aren’t some rookies right out of college — they’ve been career employees and have risen to the positions of director and assistant director of a division of one of the most important agencies in state government. How could they not know the law? Well, anyway …

The best news of all from the governor this morning is that he has decided to revive the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission, the board created by the State Scenic River Act in 1975 to monitor development along the river. Some of us have been urging the governor to do that since we discovered a couple of years ago that it hasn’t met since 2007. You can read more about that here. If that board had been active the past 10 years, none of those illegal industrial permits would have been issued.

I consider the governor’s order a major victory for the Little Missouri State Scenic River. I’m going to the first meeting. Where hopefully they’ll be talking about the two proposed new bridges across the Little Missouri River. But that’s a story for another day.

So. The hundreds of people who contacted the governor and asked him to veto the law got half a loaf — maybe more. Now we will all know what has been going on, and we will have a chance for input and reaction to what goes on in the future (I just caught myself before I said “going forward” there, a phrase I hate). Constant vigilance will be necessary now. I think we’re up to it.

Gov. Burgum expressed concern for the Little Missouri River. Rightfully so. He owns ranchland on the river.

Gov. Doug Burgum expressed concern for the Little Missouri River. Rightfully so. He owns ranchland on the river.

Here’s the letter I got from the governor this morning, as did the others who contacted him about this:

Thank you for your input on House Bill 1020. I appreciate your concerns and would like to take this opportunity to explain why I have signed the bill into law.

As governor, a North Dakota resident and a property owner on the Little Missouri River, protecting our environment and being responsible stewards of our natural resources is a priority for me personally and for our administration.

The Legislature enacted a chapter of law called the Little Missouri State Scenic River Act (LMSSRA) in 1975 to preserve the Little Missouri River as nearly as possible in a free-flowing natural condition, and to establish the Little Missouri River (LMR) commission.

Records pertaining to LMSSRA indicate that it was enacted primarily because of concerns over several energy projects having interest in dams and diversions for purposes of coal gasification or electricity generation.

The legislation allowed for agricultural water permits but not for industrial uses. However, more than 600 temporary use permits have been issued for non-agricultural uses since 1990.

Recently, a State Water Commission (SWC) hydrologist uncovered the 1975 law. A decades-long lapse in awareness and in practice has brought us to today.

Currently, there are 35 temporary use water permits issued in the Little Missouri River basin. Of these, only two have been issued in the area from the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP) to the South Dakota border, and neither of these is on the Little Missouri River proper (http://www.swc.nd.gov/pdfs/littlemo_temp_permits.pdf).

Given the importance of our Little Missouri River to our state, and as a course of action in response to the recent discovery of the SWC’s noncompliance with the 1975 law, I have:

1. Been assured by the State Engineer that no conditionalwater permits have ever been, or will be issued establishing industrial water rights from surface water in the Little Missouri River basin.

2. Asked the State Engineer to immediately suspend the issuance of any new temporary nonagricultural use permits in the Little Missouri River basin upstream from the Highway 85 bridge(known as the Long X Bridge), at the east end of the North Unit of TRNP. This area of new permit suspension stretches from the North Unit of TRNP, south along the river, through Medora, past Marmarth, N.D., all the way to the South Dakota border, and includes the entirety of the Maah Daah Hey Trail and both units of TRNP.

3. Initiated the reinstatement of the Little Missouri River Commission. We have searched archives and the last recorded meeting of this commission was held in Dickinson in 2007. Commission membership, by law, includes the Director of the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department, the State Health Officer, and the Chief Engineer of the State Water Commission, or their designated representatives; and one member from each of the following counties, appointed by their respective county commission: McKenzie, Billings, Slope, Golden Valley, Dunn and Bowman. The county representatives must be resident landowners who live adjacent to the Little Missouri River, with the exception of the Golden Valley County representative. The governor’s office will work with the State Water Commission and the respective county commissions to re-establish an active Little Missouri River Commission.

4. Asked the State Engineer to immediately reviewmodify and make transparent the process and requirements for any future issuance of temporary use permits for non-agricultural uses, and to make public all the available data on the temporary permits that have been issued since 1990. The State Engineer will deliver a preliminary report within 60 days. Also, this report and its findings will be presented to the Little Missouri River Commission and the State Water Commission. No new temporary use permits will be issued upstream of the Long X Bridge until the new system for application and approval is created.

5. Asked the State Engineer to evaluate the future need for additional Little Missouri River stream gauges. Presently, the SWC continuously monitors stream gauge flows in the Little Missouri River at three locations: Marmarth, Medora and the Highway 85 bridge. Many letters expressed concerns about water depletion in the LMR due to the industrial permits. The initial review of the river flows indicates this is a false hypothesis.  In a typical year, there is over 300,000 acre-feet of LMR water flowing past the Long X bridge. The peak year was the big flood year of 2011, when it reached a modern record of 1.1 million acre-feet of flowage. The low year of flowage since electronic recordkeeping began at the SWC in 1990 was 49,000 acre-feet (1992). In 2012, the peak year for industrial use between the TRNP North Unit and the South Dakota border, total reported use was 47 acre-feet, and it accounted for less than one-tenth of 1 percent (0.1%) of the total stream gauge flow.  For comparison, agricultural use that year was 1,024 acre-feet, while the Bully Pulpit golf course at Medora typically draws 155 acre-feet from its conditional use permit.

In addition to the above action steps, I thought you might find the following information useful:

Most temporary use permits are issued for periods of three to six months with a maximum of 12 months. All temporary permits are subject to cancellation by the State Engineer at any time, including for any violations in use, or when necessitated by drought conditions.

Temporary use permits cannot be renewed. A new application is required upon the term ending for the temporary use.

Many of temporary use permits (265 of 600) issued between 1990 and today were to support construction projects, including using water for dust control or as part of road/highway construction.

“Temporary use permits are strictly regulated by the State Engineer. Sample conditions can be found  at http://www.swc.nd.gov/pdfs/temp_permits_sample_conditions.pdf

Temporary use permits provide many benefits, including:

  • Limiting the impact on depletable water sources such as aquifers and artesian springs, a real concern in the area of the Fox Hills aquifer.
  • Avoiding the need to haul water across long distances, thereby reducing truck traffic and dust that impact wildlife, livestock, vegetation and human health. Eliminating temporary use permits would directly and substantially increase truck traffic within the LMR basin.
  • Reducing the risk of human injury from truck-vehicle collisions that may result from increased traffic congestion, as well as reducing the risk to wildlife. Truck vehicle miles traveled in North Dakota increased 88 percent from 2007 to 2015, and traffic crash fatalities increased from 104 in 2008 to 170 in 2012.
  • Reducing costs associated with building and maintaining roads due to increased heavy truck traffic.

If you desire additional technical information, or information on river flow, please contact Garland Erbele, State Engineer for the Office of the State Engineer at (701) 328-4940 or swc@nd.gov.

Our rivers, streams, lakes, aquifers and artesian springs provide a resource that supports our diverse economy, including the tourism/recreation, agriculture and energy sectors.

Thank you for your passion, concern and engagement in the public discourse about our conservation heritage and legacy.

Regards,

Doug Burgum
Governor

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Act Today To Protect The Little Missouri State Scenic River

There are two or three days left in the legislative session. A lot of bad things are going to happen to North Dakota in that short period of time. I’ve been watching every legislative session since 1975, and this one is by far the most irresponsible I’ve seen.

One of the worst things that could happen this week is the industrialization of the Little Missouri State Scenic River. I wrote about this last week. I won’t go back into it here. Instead, I’m asking you to help stop something bad from happening.

Below is an email I sent to Gov. Doug  Burgum this morning. In it, I am asking him to instruct his state engineer to withdraw the amendment to the Little Missouri Scenic River Act that he has requested in House bill 1020. You can read it here. It is on page 8, about halfway down the page. The words “temporary use,” which they are adding to the Act, are code words for Industrial Water Permits. The Water Commission’s own engineers told me that last week.

Please consider emailing Gov. Burgum by going to this link on his web page and ask him to have his state engineer withdraw his request for changes to the Little Missouri State Scenic River Act in HB1020. Please do it today. Tomorrow is probably too late. Thank you for your help.

Here’s the email I sent this morning.

Dear Gov. Burgum,

In 1975, the Legislature acted to protect the Little Missouri State Scenic River (its full and appropriate title) from industrial development by passing the Little Missouri State Scenic River Act, now Section 61-29 of the North Dakota Century Code.  Many of my friends and I were involved in that effort to protect the Little Missouri River, as the state faced a request from Tenneco to build a coal gasification plant in western North Dakota, using water from a dam on a tributary of the Little Missouri. The act specifically said “No water for industrial use from the Little Missouri or its tributaries.” That law has withstood the test of time, except that the State Water Commission has been violating it for years by giving out illegal industrial use water permits from the Little Missouri, by their own accounting more than 600 of them, to the oil and gas industry. Now the Water Commission has asked that an amendment to 61-29 be approved to allow them to legally give out industrial water permits. They have done so in an amendment to House Bill 1020, a Water Commission appropriations bill. I am writing to ask you to instruct the State Engineer to ask the Legislature to remove that amendment from HB 1020 today. You and I both know that the Little Missouri is too valuable to be used as an industrial water source. That’s why it has been named the state’s only State Scenic River, and is the only river protected from development by state law. Please act today to preserve that law, and our precious Little Missouri State Scenic River.