Garrison Diversion

History & Federal Legislation


The Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Program

On December 22, 1944, Congress authorized the Flood Control Act, later named the Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Program. The primary purpose was for flood control, navigation, irrigation and hydropower, which would be facilitated by the construction of six main stem dams on the Missouri River at Fort Peck, Garrison, Oahe, Big Bend, Fort Randall and Gavins Point.

North Dakota was promised over a million acres of irrigation as compensation for the 300,000 acres of prime farmland lost to the permanent flood created as a result of the dams and the lost economic benefit that farmland generated. The state was originally to receive this irrigation from water diverted from Fort Peck Dam in eastern Montana. Initially known as the “Missouri-Souris Project,” it included 1,275,000 acres.

Between 1944 and 1965, soil surveys and studies were performed to assess the feasibility of irrigating the 1.2 million acres originally planned for North Dakota. The studies indicated that the soil in northwestern North Dakota was not suitable for irrigation according to federal irrigation standards. Drainage problems caused by the unusually high density of glacial subsoil were a primary factor. As a result, the Bureau of Reclamation revised the diversion plan proposing instead to take water from the Garrison Dam and reservoir to irrigate other lands to the east. With the new name “Garrison Diversion,” the Bureau of Reclamation 1957 feasibility study on the redesigned project recommended irrigation of 1,007,000 acres and other water development in central and eastern North Dakota.

Garrison Diversion Unit

Because of changes to the original plan and the language in the 1964 appropriations act requiring specific reauthorization for all units of the Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Program, the Bureau of Reclamation returned to Congress for reauthorization. During the process of reauthorization, supporters of the project pointed to the many benefits for North Dakota and the need to compensate the state for land inundated by the construction of the Garrison Dam and reservoir. On August 5, 1965, Congress addressed concerns of the project—the high cost, conflict with federal farm policies and the small amount of money to be repaid by water users—by enacting legislation for the Garrison Diversion Unit (GDU). The primary focus of the plan was to include municipal and industrial water, fish and wildlife development, recreation and flood control along with irrigation of 250,000 acres. Between 1968 and 1984, construction and preparatory activities progressed on many features.

Garrison Diversion Unit Commission

As construction advanced on the Garrison Diversion Unit throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, it became increasingly apparent that major issues, such as environmental concerns, the acquisition of lands, economics of irrigation and Canadian concerns about water flowing from the Missouri River Basin into the Hudson Bay Basin, would require reformulation of the project if it were to be completed. In 1984, construction was halted and a high-level commission was appointed by the Secretary of Interior to study and recommend a change in direction.

The GDU Commission, in its final report issued December 20, 1984, recommended development of a GDU significantly different from the project described in the 1957 feasibility report and the project authorized in 1965.

The major recommendations were:

    • Irrigation of 130,940 acres of land, none of which drains to the Hudson Bay. Of these, 17,580 acres would be located on the Indian reservations of Fort Berthold and Standing Rock.
    • A grant program of $200 million to facilitate municipal, rural and industrial (MR&I) water service for as many as 130 towns and cities, rural areas and three Indian reservations.
    • A water treatment facility to treat Missouri River water that would be transferred into the Hudson Bay drainage via the Sheyenne River and then the Red River. This would provide MR&I water for Fargo, Grand Forks, other cities and rural systems. The cost of building and operating the treatment plant was declared non-reimbursable.
    • Mitigation of wildlife impacts on a new basin with specific wildlife features authorized beyond the mitigation requirements.
    • Recreation development on a 50/50 cost-share basis.
    • The cost of the commission plan was estimated at a total of $1.12 billion in capital costs, including expenditures to date, and $15.8 million in annual operation, maintenance and replacement costs. The proposed elimination of Lonetree Dam and Reservoir and replacement with the Sykeston Canal was of major concern to the state of North Dakota and Garrison Diversion Conservancy District. Lonetree was the project’s principal regulating reservoir; without it, future expansion was limited. Lonetree Dam and Reservoir remained authorized features of the commission plan and construction funds could only be requested after a finding of need by the Secretary and satisfactory consultation with the government of Canada.

Federal Legislation

Garrison Diversion Unit Reformulation Act

As a provision of the 1986 fiscal year appropriations, Congress stipulated that new construction contracts not be awarded or additional land be acquired unless the project was reauthorized by March 31, 1986. The State of North Dakota and Garrison Diversion Conservancy District subsequently elected to support reauthorization of the project. The Garrison Diversion Unit Reformulation Act of 1986 was signed into law May 12, 1986 to authorize the recommendations of the Garrison Diversion Unit Commission’s final report. In conjunction with the new act, a statement of principles was signed by all the primary stakeholders in the previous project conflicts.

Following the 1986 act, activities began on MR&I projects, mitigation and wildlife habitat, and construction continued on some of the water delivery features. The continued evaluation of a smaller Lonetree Reservoir as a project feature and further analysis of the recommended Sykeston Canal deferred progress with construction of the principal water delivery facilities. President Bush Sr., in 1990, failed to include any funding for the Garrison Diversion Unit project in his submitted FY 1991 budget.

In connection with the administration’s decision to terminate Garrison Diversion Unit funding in FY 1991, the Secretary established a task group to develop a policy on support for future funding of the authorized project. The task group’s decision was to continue funding only those features of the reformulated project which were consistent with the contemporary water needs, national priorities and the history of Garrison Diversion, but not to fund features which would be used for mitigation. The recommendations also included continuation of the MR&I grant program, Indian MR&I water supply programs, irrigation development on 17,580 acres to include two Indian reservations, continued operation for the Oakes Test Area research activities, recreation, fish and wildlife mitigation and enhancement initiatives, and a minimum level of O&M on the already constructed main supply system facilities. Funding for these features would be considered by the administration within the context of national priorities.

Dakota Water Resources Act of 2000

The Dakota Water Resources Act of 2000 (DWRA), as amended to conform to agreements reached with the administration and representatives from Missouri and Minnesota, passed the US Congress on December 15, 2000. The legislation further amended the Garrison Diversion Reformulation Act of 1986. The DWRA outlined a program to meet Indian and non-Indian water supply needs in North Dakota. Authorized uses include MR&I, fish and wildlife, recreation, irrigation, flood control, stream flow augmentation and ground water recharge.
Included in the DWRA is authorization for a $200 million increase in the MR&I fund, $200 million to meet the Native American Indian water needs, $200 million to meet the water supply needs of the Red River Valley and $32.5 million for environmental and recreation needs.

The purposes of the DWRA as declared by Congress are to:

  1. Implement the recommendations of the Garrison Diversion Unit Commission final report in the manner specified by this act.
  2. Meet the water needs within the state of North Dakota, including MR&I needs.
  3. Minimize the environmental impacts associated with the construction and operation of the Garrison Diversion Unit.
  4. Assist the United States in meeting its responsibilities under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909.
  5. Assure a more timely appropriate repayment of federal funds expended for the Garrison Diversion Unit.
  6. Preserve any existing rights of North Dakota to use water from the Missouri River.
  7. Offset the loss of North Dakota farmland resulting from the construction of major features of the Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Program providing irrigation, MR&I water systems, recreation, flood control, ground water recharge, augmented stream flows and the conservation and development of fish, wildlife and other natural resources.