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

Fog rises off the Missouri River in front of the Missouri State Capitol building on the morning of Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024, in Jefferson City, Mo.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Fog rises off the Missouri River in front of the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City. Legislation granted initial approval Wednesday in the Missouri House prohibits exporting water to other states 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.

This story was originally published by The Missouri Independent, part of the States Newsroom.

Allison Kite is a data reporter for The Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, with a focus on the environment and agriculture.