North Dakota Is Bringing Water Across the Continental Divide

Decades in the making, North Dakota’s efforts to tap Missouri River water are finally underway

North Dakota Is Bringing Water Across the Continental Divide

The spiral-welded steel, concrete-lined and epoxy-coated pipeline is 6 feet in diameter.

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A $1.1 billion, 125-mile-long pipeline project will eventually bring much-needed Missouri River water to communities in central and eastern North Dakota and help ensure the economic vitality of a region challenged for more than a century by limited water sources.       

Construction of the Red River Valley Water Supply Project began in December 2020. When the buried pipeline is completed, it’s projected to deliver 107 million gallons of water per day to more than 30 communities and rural water systems, says Duane DeKrey, general manager of the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District, which is supervising the project.      

Formed in 1955, the 28-county conservancy district administers federal water programs and operates water-related facilities for the United State Bureau of Reclamation.       

“This project will realize the long-standing dream of adequate water supply to central and eastern North Dakota,” DeKrey says. “It’s the largest water project in the history of North Dakota.”       

Many of the easternmost communities and rural water systems currently rely primarily on water from the Red River, which flows north into Canada. The water from the pipeline would essentially act as an insurance policy for municipalities in the event of a severe and prolonged drought. At the same time, it would provide the continuous supply of water necessary for growing industrial/commercial needs.       

The North Dakota Natural Resources Trust, which is funded with revenue generated by a tax on oil-production revenue, is paying 75% of the project’s cost.       

“We literally are changing oil profits into water projects,” DeKrey says.       

The communities that sign up to receive water from the RRVWSP will pay the balance of the cost. They also will be responsible for building any local treatment plants required to make the water potable and any distribution infrastructure to get it where it needs to go.       

It’s estimated that the project will use only 0.7% of the Missouri River’s available water supply and will supply water for approximately 50% of North Dakota’s population, DeKrey notes.       

“It’s comparable to taking a thimble full of water from a 5-gallon bucket filled with water.”       

About 84% of the water will go to the eastern part of the state, which includes major North Dakota cities like Fargo and Grand Forks.

Water or bust

The project is necessary because surface water in central North Dakota and the Red River valley, which runs north and south through the eastern part of the state, is limited and at times unreliable. Furthermore, most of the available groundwater is fully appropriated.       

As a result, demand for water from industries already exceeds available supplies.       

In addition, a serious and prolonged drought — which climatologists predict will happen before 2050 — would cripple the eastern two-thirds of the state and deliver nearly a $33 billion economic blow in the event of a 10-year drought, according to Garrison Diversion estimates.

“We had five months of zero water flow in the Red River at Fargo (located on the state’s eastern border) in 1934,” DeKrey observes. “If we were short of water back in the 1930s, can you imagine how short of water we’d be now if a similar drought hit with the population so much bigger now.       

“If North Dakota wants any kind of wet industries to exist in the future, we need to finish this project,” he adds. “As it is, we don’t have enough water to process our own crops, most of which are shipped out of state for lack of water.       

“This project will create a huge economic boom of wet industries, such as dairy, hog and poultry operations as well as ethanol and meat processing plants.”

Special delivery

The spiral-welded steel, concrete-lined and epoxy-coated pipeline is 6 feet in diameter. It will roughly follow the path of State Highway 200 (on the southern side of the highway), which runs east and west in just about the middle of the state.       

Building the pipeline will require the acquisition of about 280 parcels for right-of-way easements. So far, more than half of the parcels have been purchased, DeKrey says.       

“We are right on schedule. We’re in eminent domain proceedings on some parcels, but we still remain on schedule.”       

The pipeline will carry water eastward at 165 cubic feet per second. The water will travel from an intake structure along a dormant waterway called the McClusky Canal, near the city of McClusky, all the way to a discharge structure along the Sheyenne River, south of the city of Cooperstown. The Sheyenne River then naturally flows into the Red River.       

“The project is unique because it will take treated water across a continental divide,” DeKrey points out.       

The project includes a break tank located just west of the divide, which separates the Missouri River and Hudson Bay watersheds. Water from the Missouri River is pumped to the divide, then flows the rest of the way by gravity. The break tank keeps the pipeline full of water in the event of a power outage, for example. That, in turn, keeps air out of the system, which helps prevent pipeline damage when water flow starts up again.       

The project also will include a treatment plant near the intake structure that will treat the water, but not to drinking water standards.       

“We don’t want to send potable water into the Sheyenne River, then treat it again at municipal plants,” DeKrey explains. “Also, most industries have boutique treatment needs that they handle themselves, so it wouldn’t make sense to treat the water to potable standards.”

A tangled history

The 74-mile-long McClusky Canal — originally part of a significantly larger and more ambitious plan to build canals, reservoirs and pipelines to bring Missouri Water to eastern and central North Dakota — symbolizes the futility of decades and decades of plans aimed at slaking the state’s thirst for water.       

Built in the mid-1970s, the canal is fed by water pumped from Lake Sakakawea, the largest man-made lake in North Dakota; the lake was created when the United States Army Corps of Engineers built the 2-mile-long Garrison Dam, completed in 1953.       

The dam was one of five built under the so-called Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Program, created by the U.S. Congress in 1944 to control flooding of the river and better manage its water resources. The program was named for the two men who developed the program: Lewis A. Pick, who was the director of the Missouri River office of the USACE, and William Glenn Sloan, who served as director of the Billings, Montana, office of the USBR.       

The McClusky Canal originally was supposed to carry water to the headwaters of the Sheyenne River for irrigation and municipal use. But Canadian officials filed a lawsuit to stop that, alleging that ecological damage could ensue if water from the Missouri River crossed a continental divide and drained into the Hudson Bay watershed. (The Red River drains into Lake Winnipeg, which then drains into the Hudson Bay watershed.)       

“That stopped this project cold for many, many years,” DeKrey says.       

As a result of a lawsuit settlement, the canal was plugged at mile marker 59, just short of the continental divide. Subsequently, the last 15 miles of the canal to the east of the divide is little more than a large, nicely built ditch, he notes.       

Furthermore, the canal has carried only about 8,000 to 10,000 acre feet of water a year — a fraction of what was originally promised back in the 1960s — used only for irrigation in a limited area of central North Dakota.

Pipeline progressing

As a former state legislator for 20 years, a farmer and rancher for 30 years and a former deputy director of the state’s Game and Fish Department, DeKrey is intimately familiar with the tortured history of efforts to bring Missouri River water eastward. Various plans and proposals have been beset by legal challenges, including some from environmental groups and the state of Missouri, which is concerned about any effort to take water from the Missouri River.       

But DeKrey is heartened to finally see some progress. The intake and discharge structures are finished and about three miles of pipeline have been installed as of June, he says.       

There’s no official completion date for the project; the construction timeline is largely dependent on the pace of state funding. The state has approved $180 million in funding for the 2023 through 2025 biennial state budget, which would pay for about 43 miles of pipeline construction and additional pipeline design costs.       

At the current rate of funding, DeKrey says it could take 25 years or more to complete the pipeline — and costs will keep rising the longer it takes. But no matter when the pipeline is completed, he thinks it will be well worth the wait.       

“The state of North Dakota needs this water to thrive,” he says. “The future of the state will be built on this water.       

“We’re finally starting to realize what was promised back in 1944 when the Pick-Sloan plan was approved. After this project is completed, North Dakota will finally receive the water supply it should have received decades ago.”


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