ENVIRONMENT

A Canadian struggle to stem the flow

Andrew Nikiforuk September 24 1984
ENVIRONMENT

A Canadian struggle to stem the flow

Andrew Nikiforuk September 24 1984

A Canadian struggle to stem the flow

ENVIRONMENT

Andrew Nikiforuk

The 12-member commission sat impassively in the civic auditorium of Bismarck, N.D., last week as local politicians in Oxford shoes and farmers in cowboy boots alternately took turns at the microphone. They had come to defend and praise the state’s grandest obsession, the Garrison Diversion Unit, a $1.2-billion plan to transfer water from the Missouri River basin in order to irrigate 250,000 acres of farmland in the northwestern part of the state, from which rivers run north to Canada. But the atmosphere of boosterism, spiced with applause from observers in the auditorium, quickly soured when a delegation of Canadian officials and environmentalists spoke on the matter. Bill Uruski, Manitoba’s agriculture minister, typified the Canadian comments when he urged the special commission to consider the scheme “a dead plan.” When commissioner John Paulson, a North Dakotan, accused Uruski of seeking “perfection in an imperfect world,” Uruski calmly replied, “We don’t want perfection and we don’t want your water.”

The first hearings of the commission, which took place over two days in Bismarck, marked a historic turning point in an international dispute that has been a chronic irritant in CanadianAmerican relations over the past 20 years. The decision of the commission, which was formed specifically to resolve the fate of the Garrison project, will be binding on the project’s sponsor, the U.S. department of the interior. And it marks the first time that the United States has invited Canadian delegations to express their concerns on Garrison.

Uruski joined forces with Dennis Davis of Environment Canada to present a summary of the Canadian position. Davis drew attention to a 1977 decision of the International Joint Commission, which ruled that the project “would cause injury to health and property in Canada” and rebutted arguments that new technology could prevent the transfer of pollutants from the south-flowing Missouri into Canadian rivers. The Canadians warned that the transfer of trash, fish and diseases into the Hudson Bay watershed could destroy Manitoba’s multimillion-dollar fishing industry, that irrigation runoff from the Garrison unit could pollute drinking water and that the project would destroy the wetland habitats of migratory birds. The commission’s chairman, David

Treen, expressed surprise at Canada’s position and said that it could present “a very serious problem” in his search for a compromise. Said Treen: “When you add it all up, they are saying no, never, never.” But a few Garrison promoters who testified dismissed Canada’s concerns and accused its speakers of political manoeuvring. Said former North Dakota governor William Guy: “I am aware that it is advantageous for Canadian political parties to stand up against the United States.”

The commission, which was formed after it became doubtful last spring that

ated their support for the scheme, which they said will provide needed water for farms, cities, industry and recreational pursuits in the eastern portion of the state. But its opponents, who include western farmers, the National Audubon Society and the National Taxpayers Union, insisted that Garrison is costly, poorly designed and environmentally dangerous. In fact, the project has been plagued by so many lawsuits and legislative battles that it is now only onefifth complete although construction began in 1965. Nathaniel Reed, a spokesman for Audubon, charged that the proj -

the U.S. Senate would continue to approve funds for the project, has until Jan. 1 to solve the dispute and to develop alternatives to Garrison’s design. If approved by two-thirds of its members, its recommendations will most likely seal Garrison’s fate. Said Glenn Paulson, a vice-president of the National Audubon Society, which helped to strike the deal that formed the commission: “In the environment field this commission is unprecedented. What it says will happen. It cannot be ignored.”

At the hearings several U.S. groups supported Canada’s position. Garrison’s diehard backers—local politicians, farm leaders and a prosperous cottage industry of lawyers and contractors—reiter-

ect would irrigate land for less than one per cent of the state's farmers at the expense of tremendous damage to wild life. And Albert Klain, a 52-year-old farmer, claimed the only completed por tion of the project, the McClusky Ca nal, already needed $6 million in repairs.

Despite the pleas, defenders - have come to realize that the plan cannot survive without changes, although they remain firm in their desire to bring Missouri River water to the cities and farms of western North Dakota. Said Murray Sagsveen, general counsel for the project: "We are not worshipping a Garrison idol." The commission may yet find a way for North Dakota to resolve its needs without exporting the risks.G