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‘The water wars are coming’: Missouri looks to limit exports from rivers, lakes

Vegetation grows along the Missouri River on Monday, June 12, 2023, at a Missouri River overlook in Glasgow, Mo.
Cara Penquite
Missouri Independent
The Missouri River at an overlook in Glasgow, Mo. The bill that cleared an initial vote in the House would prioritize water for Missouri residents, prohibiting exports of it without a permit.

Missouri House members on Wednesday took a step toward prohibiting exports of water, arguing the state’s “most precious resource” should be protected and reserved for residents.

The bill, which prohibits water exports without a state permit, cleared an initial Missouri House vote 115-25. It needs second approval before it moves to the Missouri Senate, where a similar bill has passed a committee vote and awaits action by senators.

Speaking in favor of the bill, Bridget Walsh Moore, a Democrat from St. Louis, said “the water wars are coming.”

“The western water table is drying up,” Walsh Moore said. “This is forward thinking and protecting Missouri from future problems.”

With the Missouri River running through the middle of the state, the Mississippi along its eastern border and the Osage River that feeds the Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri is home to a host of reliable freshwater systems. But lawmakers fear as other states struggle with a drier future, they might look to Missouri as a solution.

To the west, Kansas is grappling with the decline of the Ogallala Aquifer, an underground supply of fresh water that has been over pumped for decades and threatens running dry. The changing climate and overuse threaten water supplies in much of the western U.S.

Republicans Sen. Jason Bean and Rep. Jamie Burger — from Holcomb and Benton, respectively — introduced legislation this year that would prohibit water exports from Missouri without a permit from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

The bill would prioritize Missouri users over requests from out of state. In order to receive an export permit, according to the bill, there would have to be enough water present and the out-of-state proposal could not interfere with existing or proposed uses within Missouri. The applicant would also have to demonstrate they need the water and intend to put it to good use.

Missouri officials would have to analyze whether existing and proposed water uses in Missouri would still have access to adequate supply before approving a water export.

Burger told The Independent earlier this year that he wasn’t aware of any efforts to export water from the state aside from some long standing agreements along the state’s borders with Arkansas and Oklahoma.As of last week, about one-third of Missouri is in a moderate or severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

The Missouri Independent is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering state government, politics and policy. It is staffed by veteran Missouri reporters and is dedicated to its mission of relentless investigative journalism that sheds light on how decisions in Jefferson City are made and their impact on individuals across the Show-Me State.
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