The anti-Dakota Access Pipeline protest encampment is situated in the bull's-eye for a potentially severe spring flood. As snowfall totals mount, state officials are dialing up their warnings.
Bismarck has never recorded higher year-to-date snowfall at 57.3 inches and the State Water Commission, through the state’s Joint Information Center, reports the situation means “a significant safety risk to people and property at that location.”
The Oceti Sakowin main encampment is located on the flood plain where the Cannonball River and Cantapeta Creek meet the Missouri River/Lake Oahe.
History of floods
Records compiled by the U.S. Geological Survey show the encampment area has been underwater 10 times in the past seven decades using 15 feet at the nearest Cannonball River gauging station at Breien as a measure. Two of the top three floods occurred as recently as 2009 and 1997 and brought significantly higher water than 15 feet in the fourth week of March, about 10 weeks from now.
It’s estimated 700 to 1,000 people remain in the camp with semi-permanent and temporary structures, outhouses, kitchens, meeting lodges and other items of some value, such as generators, solar energy panels, chain saws, food and medical stores, motor homes, vehicles and other personal property.
At 15 feet, National Weather Service hydrologist Allen Schlag said portions of the camp could be under 4 feet of water. Worse would be the destructive ice floes and debris, including downed trees, grinding through the flood water.
Schlag said it’s not known if 15 feet is a magic number, and he’s working to refine the risk at gauge heights of 14 or 13 feet, or less.
“But I am absolutely confident that at 15 feet, that area is underwater,” he said.
In 2009 — with comparable year-to-date snowfall of 54 inches — the flood stage reached more than 21 feet with a flow rate of 30,000 cubic feet per second.
“That’s a heck of a lot of water, especially when you think of the Missouri River at Bismarck, with maybe 15,000 cfs going through now,” Schlag said.
In 1997, the water exceeded 20 feet with a flow rate of 31,000 cfs.
At that point, a person could easily stand on N.D. Highway 1806 adjacent to the camp and touch the flood water with a short stick, he said.
Water from both sides
The flood data doesn’t account for Cantapeta Creek, because it joins the Cannonball River well past the Breien gauge station. The creek drains 82 square miles.
“There is a fair amount of drainage that comes in below Breien," Schlag said.
Another contributing factor would be the status of the Missouri River/Lake Oahe, where the combined flow of the Cannonball River and Cantapeta Creek would empty. If the big water is at significant height, it will slow the rate at which Cannonball River waters could move through.
“It’s all about the slope and, when the Missouri River/Lake Oahe rises, you’ve taken away some of the slope for the last few miles (of the Cannonball),” Schlag said.
Despite comparisons to other flood years, Schlag said it’s impossible to make an accurate call at this time. The NWS will start its flood forecast in two weeks.
“I’m not a big fan of things being stored in a flood plain," Schlag said of the camp. "A flood can strike with little warning. I don’t know how long it would take for the residents there to move."
Tribe’s call to camp
The protest camp, once occupied by as many as 10,000 people, is associated with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s stand against the pipeline being located one-half mile north of the reservation boundary.
The project is at a standstill since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ announcement in early December that it will not issue an easement to bore the crude oil line under the Missouri River/Lake Oahe. Instead, it will look at alternate routes and possibly conduct a full environmental impact statement on the crossing.
Tribal Chairman David Archambault II has asked pipeline protesters to leave the camp because the tribe has achieved its goals and because the threat of severe winter weather and now flooding was escalating.
“People accuse me of selling out; that’s not true. I am concerned for people’s lives and safety,” he said.
That same call to leave has been issued by Gov. Doug Burgum.
Archambault said the tribal council is working with camp leaders on timelines and plans for clearing the main camp area to prevent the water from being contaminated and property from being lost and damaged.
“I’m guessing it will flood, and I know it can flood even without a lot of snow. It floods every year in that area. We need to have a plan and to know whether they need equipment to do it,” Archambault said.
He said it would be difficult, but not impossible to clear the camp in the current snow conditions.
At a recent meeting with people from the camps, the chairman told them, “This whole thing is about protecting the water but what ... we are going to see is contamination of the Missouri River (by) the debris that’s left on the flood plain.”
Cecily Fong, spokeswoman for the Department of Emergency Services, said agencies are working against a March deadline, when flooding typically occurs.
“We’re really concerned about abandoned cars; we don’t want to see those going in the water. Also, with pits for garbage and human waste,” she said.