BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) â€” A federal judge has ordered that water levels at a key reservoir be maintained because of a tribal lawsuit over eroding gravesites, a decision that experts say threatens Missouri River dam and reservoir operations.
The temporary restraining order was issued in response to a lawsuit filed by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, which contends erosion from water releases on the river has exposed as many as 100 American Indian graves.
The order, which went into effect Monday night, is forcing the Army Corps of Engineers to release more water from dams in North Dakota and Montana to make up for a drop in hydroelectric power generated at Lake Oahe in South Dakota.
A trial date is expected to be set sometime this month.
The order is intended to keep fluctuating water levels at Lake Oahe from further disturbing cultural and historical sites important to the tribe. In response to the order, the corps released more water from North Dakota's Lake Sakakawea on Tuesday.
Jesse Taken Alive, a Standing Rock tribal council member in McLaughlin, S.D., said he was happy with the judge's decision.
``It's a step towards trying to resolve it,'' he said. ``At least the court system is listening to us in this matter.''
Bob Keasling, a hydraulic engineer with the corps in Omaha, Neb., said the change will throw the river's three large reservoirs out of balance.
The judge's order also affects the Western Area Power Administration, a government agency that supplies power to rural cooperatives across the region. The administration was forced to buy power that could not be generated at Lake Oahe.
``They had to scramble and make purchases because I started cutting the system generation,'' Keasling said.
Keasling also said the agency stood to lose about $3 million as a result of lost energy. Water will still flow from Lake Oahe, after the water from North Dakota and Montana gets there. Barges in the lower Missouri River will not be affected by the order, Keasling said.
The tribe filed the lawsuit in hopes of protecting the buried descendants of Chief Mad Bear, the leader of a band of Hunkpapa Lakota Indians. In August, remains were discovered near Wakpala, S.D., when water levels dropped in Lake Oahe.
Tribal members contend poor management of the Missouri River has led to human remains being exposed and left open to looters.
``We know for a fact that there's a black market,'' Taken Alive said. ``A lot of folks coming from out of state as well as in state are taking trips to the area. We do have tribal monitors out in the area, and they have seen them with remains, artifacts and antiquities.''
Taken Alive said the tribe has been trying to get the corps to place walls around the burial sites or to bury the remains elsewhere.
A similar discovery in December 1999 near the Fort Randall Dam led to a court fight between the corps and the Yankton Sioux Tribe.
In both cases, tribes have discovered remains from graves that were supposedly moved more than 40 years ago, before the Missouri River dams were built.
On the Net:
Mni Sose Intertribal Water Rights Coalition, Inc.: http://www.mnisose.org
Army Corps of Engineers: http://www.usace.army.mil