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Remarkable Points on the Missouri River
Explore the Missouri River with Lewis and Clark and the U.S. Geological Survey
The Missouri River Basin
The Missouri River is the largest river in North Dakota and accounts for 80 percent of the total mean streamflow in the State. The Missouri River Basin is comprised of seven major subbasins and drains about 34,000 square miles or about 48 percent of the State’s total area.
The tributaries on the west and south side of the Missouri River generally occupy small, sharply defined basins in a well-drained area with few natural lakes. This area is characterized by steep-sided buttes and rolling hills with the most prominent ones located in the badlands along the Little Missouri River. Exposed bedrock throughout this area ranges from sandstones and shales to clays and carbonates that weather easily. Toward the river, the tributary basins are covered with a layer of glacial drift. Annual mean streamflows generally are higher in these basins than in the basins located east of the Missouri River. Click on the thumbnail to the right to view a satellite image of western North Dakota.
The tributaries that flow from the east are in an area characterized by gently rolling hills and numerous small lakes and wetlands and may have considerable noncontributing drainage area. The area has some exposed bedrock, predominantly sandstones, but is dominated mainly by glacial drift and small water bodies. Annual mean streamflows generally are lower in these basins than in the basins located west of the Missouri River. Click on the thumbnail to the left to view a satellite image of the lakes and wetlands east of the Missouri River in North Dakota.
The Missouri River Basin is located in the west half of North Dakota and coincides approximately with the part of the State having a semiarid climate. Annual mean precipitation in the basin ranges from about 13 inches in the northwest to 17 inches in the east.
Of the original 390 Missouri River miles in North Dakota, about 80 miles remain free–flowing. These free–flowing river miles are located in the reach just below Garrison Dam and upstream from Lake Oahe (formed by a dam located in South Dakota). Garrison Dam, about 70 miles north of Bismarck, was built in 1953 as part of a system of dams and reservoirs located on the Missouri River in Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the dams, in part, to control flooding on the Missouri River. Before the construction of Garrison Dam, the maximum peak streamflow measured at Bismarck was 500,000 cubic feet per second on April 6, 1952. For 1954–2000, the annual mean flow at Bismarck was 23,170 cubic feet per second.
The Missouri River plays an important part in the development of human activities in the area through which it flows. The river is used for transportation, water supply, agriculture, power generation, and recreation. Of concern to the people of North Dakota is maintaining the integrity of the unchannelized reach of the river and the reservoirs while promoting their uses. This interest intensifies during periods of drought within the basin. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, severe drought conditions occurred in the upper Great Plains. During this period, water levels within the river and Lake Sakakawea were extremely low. These low levels impacted water supplies, irrigation, and recreation within the Missouri River corridor. Also of concern to the people of North Dakota is the need for the State to establish its right to a fair share of the Missouri River water. Delivery of Missouri River water to the Red River Valley is one option being examined by the Bureau of Reclamation under the Dakota Water Resources Act. Any interbasin transfer of water from the Missouri River to the Red River of the North is highly controversial.
For more information on the Missouri River system, visit the U.S. Geological Survey’s Missouri River InfoLINK web site at http://infolink.cr.usgs.gov/.