A federal appeals court panel on Friday rejected the state of Missouri's challenge to a massive upstream Missouri River water project in North Dakota, potentially ending a second legal battle over the project that has been in the works for more than three decades.
The $244 million Northwest Area Water Supply project aims to bring river water to 82,000 people in northwestern North Dakota, giving them a reliable source of quality water. Missouri worries the project will diminish the river water it needs for drinking, farming and shipping. The state sued in 2009.
The underlying dispute centers on how much water NAWS will actually use. Missouri maintains it will deplete the river by 3.5 billion gallons each year, causing "manifold injuries to Missouri's sovereign and proprietary interests." North Dakota counters that the number is misleading because the river system has the capacity for more than 23 trillion gallons of water.
The legal battle didn't address the water disagreement. U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer in Washington, D.C., ruled in 2017 that Missouri had no authority to sue the federal government over the matter. The state appealed, but a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday upheld Collyer's ruling.
"In the end, we are unpersuaded by Missouri's argument" that there are exceptions in case law under which its claim fits.
Missouri could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The state attorney general's office didn't immediately comment.
North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem praised the ruling, calling it "a significant and long-sought victory for the citizens of North Dakota."
Congress first authorized the NAWS project in 1986. It ran into a snag in 2002 when the Canadian province of Manitoba sued over concerns about the possible transfer of harmful bacteria or other agents from the Missouri River Basin to the Hudson Bay Basin. The international dispute was resolved about a year ago when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Manitoba government reached an agreement giving Canada a say in water treatment and monitoring.
A combined $133 million in federal, state and local money has been spent so far on nearly 250 miles of pipeline and other infrastructure, with another 60 miles of pipeline to go, project manager Tim Freije said. The system currently serves more than 30,000 people. Future state and federal funding is not guaranteed, but state officials hope to complete the project by 2023, Freije said