A bridge project across Lake Oahe on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation is being researched by the Sioux tribe to link Sioux County and Emmons County.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is seeking a $6.7 million grant to look at the possibility of building a bridge across Lake Oahe on the Missouri River.

The tribe has applied for the grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, called the Better Utilizing Investment to Leverage Development grant, which is for projects that will have a significant local or regional impact, giving special consideration to projects located in rural areas.

With the grant funding, the tribe hopes to commission an environmental impact statement on a proposed crossing near Fort Yates. The EIS process is expected to take about six years, and afterward it would position the project for full design and construction.

When Lake Oahe was created in 1958, it severed transportation connectivity between the west side of the Missouri River, Sioux County, which comprises the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, and Emmons County on the east side.

On the east side of the river, the nearest crossings are at Bismarck and Mobridge, S.D., more than 100 miles apart. On the west side, it's a 115-mile stretch from Bismarck to Mobridge, S.D. The only other way to cross the river for more than 100 miles is a pontoon privately operated by Prairie Knights Casino.

Ron His Horse Is Thunder, a former tribal chairman and the tribe's current director of transportation planning and development, said a bridge has long been called for.

According to His Horse Is Thunder, the federal government authorized the bridge when Lake Oahe was created. But they never followed through, and the tribe also objected to previous bridge proposals due to concerns the bridge could disrupt burial sites and other cultural issues.

The bridge was first included in the 1970 Flood Control Act, according to an environmental impact statement the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed for the project in 1994.

The corps contracted with the state of North Dakota in 1972 for the design, construction, ownership, operation and maintenance of the proposed bridge, about 13 miles north of Fort Yates, according to the EIS.

The EIS stated that Standing Rock Sioux Tribe opposed the project due to potential social and cultural impacts, and, in 1977, the project was deemed "inactive." In 1983, the tribal council decided to support the project and the project was reclassified as "active."

The EIS in 1994 found "overall strong support for the bridge project" after conducting three meetings, in Linton, Fort Yates and Bismarck. However, the tribe ultimately opposed the proposed location because there wasn't a complete assessment of cultural sites along the river, according to His Horse Is Thunder.

Today, technology exists for a more complete search of these sites, which His Horse Is Thunder said has eased the tribe's concerns.

"The tribe is a little bit more receptive to the idea that, OK, if we do this bridge we'll use this new technology and these cultural sites will be found and they will be protected," he said.

In 2014, the tribal council named the bridge project a priority and passed a resolution authorizing project planning when funding became available. On July 5, the tribal council reaffirmed the project as a priority by passing a resolution to apply for the BUILD grant.

His Horse Is Thunder said a bridge would not only support the agriculture and ranching economy of the Standing Rock Reservation, but communities surrounding the reservation and across the river. A bridge would open the ability to ship goods to market, rather than being limited to crossings at Bismarck or Mobridge, S.D., he said.

"It's not just about the reservation economy, it's about the whole area's economy and how it ties to the national economy," His Horse Is Thunder said. "It would be great for ag producers in terms of opening up their markets."

His Horse Is Thunder said another benefit would be for emergency management services and fire departments in the area, which are limited to responding to one side of the river or the other.

The Morton County Commission and the Sioux County Commission have voiced their support for the grant.

"(A bridge would be) a great benefit to anybody. As everybody knows, the Missouri River is a formidable object in terms of being able to get across it," said Morton County Commission Chairman Bruce Strinden.

Strinden said the bridge would be beneficial to residents not only in Sioux County, but in surrounding counties, including Morton County, where farmers have to haul agricultural commodities and livestock.

"It really just makes sense. I think the bottom line is, when you start building bridges across a river the size of the Missouri, your cost is really substantial. And that's probably going to be the biggest obstacle," Strinden said.

Ken Schmidt, of Solen, farms land near Selfridge in Sioux County. He grows sunflowers and takes 100 to 200 loads to Enderlin and Wahpeton each year. Round trip, it's a 12-hour drive, he said. A bridge would take off about two hours.

"(The bridge is) news to me, but it would sure be beneficial," Schmidt said.

David Kalberer, a member of the Emmons County Commission, said the commission has not yet discussed the grant the tribe has applied for. Rep. Mike Bradenburg, R-Edgeley, said he's aware of the grant and supports efforts to study constructing a bridge.

"I just had some discussions and I'm open to it," said Bradenburg, who represents Emmons County. "I guess we'll have to see what the people in Emmons County want to do."

For years people have worked on both sides of the river to get a bridge built, said Bradenburg, who also served as a legislator in the late 1990s.

"I would say it's got a 50-year history of trying to do something. There still are a lot of people who would like to see a bridge, and then there are some that don't," he said.

His Horse Is Thunder said the tribe won't know if it got the grant until November. If it's approved, funding for the actual construction of a bridge would involve a number of players, including Congress and state government. If a bridge is built, it would be entered into the state system and maintained with the other state DOT bridges.

In July, Sens. Heidi Heitkamp and John Hoeven sent letters of support for the project to Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, as did Rep. Kevin Cramer. Tom Sorel, director of the North Dakota Department of Transportation, also sent a letter of support.

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Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com.


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