World

Fearing an American deluge

Ottawa and Washington square off over schemes to divert water into Canada

Andrew Phillips November 29 1999
World

Fearing an American deluge

Ottawa and Washington square off over schemes to divert water into Canada

Andrew Phillips November 29 1999

Fearing an American deluge

World United States

Ottawa and Washington square off over schemes to divert water into Canada

Andrew Phillips in Washington

The water rises so slowly that only scientists, measuring it with their precise instruments, can be sure that it keeps on coming. But rise it does— millimetre by relentless millimetre, swallowing houses, trees, roads, even whole farms. Kyle Blanchfield knows it. He has watched for six years as Devils Lake, a spreading stain on the North Dakota prairie 100 km south of the border with Manitoba, gradually eats away at his land. Three years ago, Blanchfield relocated his Woodland Resort—a lodge, a restaurant and campsites—to higher, drier ground. Now, he’s preparing to move again as Devils Lake keeps on rising. “It’s a miserable experience, to say the least,” he says. “It just doesn’t end.”

The slow-motion flood around Devils Lake would be just a local tragedy in

an obscure corner of the continent but for one thing. North Dakota wants to drain millions of litres of lake water into the nearby Red River, which flows north through Manitoba and into Lake Winnipeg. Manitoba fears its waters might be contaminated by new species of fish, which could threaten the local fishing industry and alter ecosystems for hundreds of kilometres, as well as by parasites and pollutants. To make matters worse, North Dakota is on the verge of winning approval in Congress for a separate project that would divert even more unwanted water into Manitoba. Both plans have been discussed for years—decades in the case of the diversion project. But North Dakota’s powerful senators, using their close ties with the Clinton White House, have suddenly pushed the schemes ahead and Canada is scrambling to block them.

Feelings are running high on both sides of the border. Manitoba Premier Gary Doer, in office less than two months, complains about “Rambo statements” from American politicians. And in North Dakota, patience with their Canadian neighbours is wearing

decidedly thin. Both projects are badly needed, people there say, and the seemingly endless consultations and studies demanded by Manitoba leaves them frustrated. “I’d have hoped for a more understanding attitude from Canada,” says Warren Jamison, manager of the organization that wants to divert water from the Missouri River into the Red River. “But were not getting it.”

Water, of course, is a long-standing sticking point between Canada and the United States. But recent controversies have focused on American attempts to import water from Canada—not to send it in the other direction. Alarms sounded in Winnipeg and Ottawa when it became clear that North Dakota had won new support for its longdisputed projects. On Oct. 5, the states senators, Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan, announced that the White House had authorized the U.S. army corps of engineers to go ahead with a plan to cut a channel out of Devils Lake and drain water into the Red River system—perhaps as soon as next October. That was a complete turnaround from late June, when the corps announced that drain-

‘Fm playing catch-up,’ says Manitoba’s new premier. ‘There’s no sense sugarcoating the fact that North Dakota has gotten ahead of us here’

its high mineral content. I On the U.S. side, all I that is viewed with inf creasing impatience. If " nothing is done, say people in Devils Lake, the water will eventually overflow from its saltier eastern end and run into the Red Rver. The army’s controlled drainage from the cleaner west end of the lake would be much safer, they say. “If you just wait, you’ll have the worst of all situations,” says town engineer Glenn Olson. As for Manitoba’s call for more studies, he says: “We don’t know what’s left to study. No one has proved there will be any problems.”

ing the lake was not a “necessary or appropriate solution.” At the same time, the senators rushed through committee and into the full Senate a bill authorizing a large-scale diversion of water from the Missouri River into the Red Rver.

Both moves caught Canada by surprise. Manitoba politicians, embroiled in an election campaign in September, did not realize that projects they have worked for years to prevent were suddenly being green-lighted in Washington. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien raised the issue with Bill Clinton during the President’s visit to Ottawa in October, winning a promise that the United States will respect its obligations under a 1909 treaty not to pollute shared waters. And Doer rushed to Washington

in late October to voice his concerns. Still, he told Macleans last week: “I’m playing catch-up. There’s no sense sugarcoating the fact that North Dakota has gotten ahead of us here.”

Why now? In large part because of the U.S. electoral calendar. Senators Conrad and Dorgan, both Democrats and close allies of Clinton, want to make sure their state gets its projects approved before this administration ends in January, 2001 (Conrad himself is up for re-election next fall). North Dakota is suffering a deep farm crisis and losing military installations as outmoded mis-

sile silos are eliminated, so its leaders are pressing for other projects. And both senators were staunch supporters of Clinton during his battle against impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and may be collecting on that political debt. “It’s time to call in their chits,” says a Canadian official who closely follows the water fight.

Now, Manitoba fears it could be on the receiving end of unwanted contaminants in a river basin that is home to a million of its people. The scheme to drain Devils Lake is most pressing. The lake has no natural outlet, and relentlessly heavy rains have kept its level rising steadily since 1993—an unprecedented 7.5 m in six years. The water quickly spreads out on the flat prairie. It has swallowed almost 500 homes, bridges, country roads, a million trees and entire farms, drowning 32,000 hectares in all. The town of Devils Lake, with its 8,500 people, has built 11 km of dikes to ward off the water, now 440 m above sea level. Once it reaches 444.7 m, it will overflow naturally into the Red Rver basin—but by then it will have flooded another 100,000 hectares.

It amounts to a relentless, gradual disaster, one that local people quite naturally want to stop. Under the plan approved by Washington, army engineers would cut a drainage channel from the lake to the nearby Sheyenne River, which in turn flows into the Red Rver.

Manitoba, however, argues that might transfer outside fish species, parasites and other contaminants into its water. Devils Lake, say provincial water experts, has been cut off from the Red Rver for 1,800 years, and they don’t want non-native species threatening Lake Winnipeg’s $25-million fishing industry. North Dakota’s striped bass, for example, could crowd out the local walleye and jumbo perch. The water quality is also at issue due to

The second project involves building a 38-km pipeline to transfer water from the Missouri Rver to ensure a reliable supply for fast-growing towns along the Red Rver in North Dakota. This is the latest version of a decades-old plan called the Garrison Diversion Project. Canada thought it had blocked it in the mid1980s by working with environmentalists and others opposed to mingling the waters of the two river systems. The fear, once again, is that non-native species could wreak havoc with aquatic life— much as zebra mussels have done in the Great Lakes. Manitoba makes no apologies for its cautious approach. “You don’t want to learn about a problem when it’s too late to do anything about it,” says Dwight Williamson, manager of the province’s water-quality branch.

North Dakota’s senators, however, are steering a bill through Congress that provides for $924 million to develop the Garrison project. Ottawa and Winnipeg are orchestrating opposition to both plans, in part by enlisting the support of U.S. allies like Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, whose state also borders on the Red Rver, and senators from Missouri, who don’t want water taken from their river. So far, though, they face an uphill battle—and increasing tension in the cross-border water wars. El