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Dangerous precedent
May 27, 2005

Because there are no complete scientific studies about the potential harm of introducing Devils Lake water into the Sheyenne River and from there into the Red River, opponents and advocates of the outlet now under construction in North Dakota have had to resort to a war of words.

Frank McKenna, Canada’s Ambassador to the United States, wrote to the New York Times arguing against the outlet, while John Hoeven, the Governor of North Dakota, has written to Canadian newspapers arguing for its completion.

“I was disappointed to see Frank McKenna’s recent mischaracterization of the basic facts about North Dakota’s Devils Lake outlet ... I would like to take this opportunity to set the matter straight,’ wrote Hoeven to the National Post.

While the governor makes his case to “set the matter straight,” the US $28-million, 20-kilometre outlet is proceeding merrily along with little regard to the potential ecological disaster it could spawn.

It’s not that Manitobans and Canadians feel an ecological disaster is inevitable, it’s that they want solid assurances that such a disaster will not take place. That’s why the Canadian government, with the support of the Manitoba government and a number of American state governments and environmental groups, has proposed that the matter be taken to the International Joint Commission, or IJC, which reviews international water issues.

“I am sure that you will understand that the Government of Canada must do everything it can to ensure Canadian waters are not polluted to the injury of health or property, as required under Article IV of the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty (which established the IJC), including the multi-million dollar commercial and recreational fishery in Lake Winnipeg,” McKenna wrote to U.S. Senator Kent Conrad (North Dakota) on April 26, hoping he could convince the senator that it was essential for U.S. Secretary of State Condolezza Rice to refer the matter to the IJC.

What Hoeven and McKenna disagree on is that Canada has already missed its opportunity to have the outlet referred to the IJC. Hoeven and other North Dakota politicians and officials insist an opportunity was offered in 2002, “but Canada declined.”

McKenna told Conrad that Canada did not say “no” ... “only that it was premature because the proposal was still undergoing domestic assessment. In proposing a joint Canada-U.S. reference to the IJC on the current, state-funded project ... Canada has relied on repeated assurances from the State Department that any outlet would have to be consistent with U.S. Boundary Water Treaty obligations.”

The governor is also attempting to portray Canadians as non-caring because flooding from Devils Lake has resulted in at least US $400-million in damage through the destruction or relocation of personal property.

“To relieve this problem,” wrote Hoeven, “the state of North Dakota has built an outlet for carefully controlled and monitored releases of water into an adjacent river system, which eventually flows into Canada.”

McKenna has replied that recent reports indicate little likelihood of more water flowing into the lake.

In support of McKenna’s claim, the level of Devils Lake has actually been going down. In 2003, the lake was one foot down from its 2001 level, the peak of the lake’s rise. The chances of Devils Lake naturally overflowing into the Sheyenne River are given at less than 0.2 per cent by 2045, according to the National Weather Service in the U.S.

The last time that Devils Lake did overflow into the Sheyenne was 1,800 years ago, giving plenty of time for organisms to evolve differently from other bodies of water. Yet, the extent of differences between the lake and the Red River system is still a matter of conjecture in the absence of hard scientific data.

Two parasites are often cited as examples of the danger: one is a flatworm that eats away at fish gills and another is a tape worm which can expand to the point of outweighing its host. These in themselves are valid concerns, but the unknown quantity is what else lurks in the highly-saline Devils Lake environment.

While continuing monitoring of water discharged by the outlet is promised, it’s the unknown which instills fear, especially for the commercial fishermen who rely upon Lake Winnipeg for a livelihood — the 11th largest freshwater lake in the world with the greatest inland commercial fishery in North American.

A former mayor of Gimli occasionally quoted the Bible in making his point against the controversial Garrison Diversion in North Dakota, which would have introduced completely unrelated water from the Missouri Basin into the Hudson Bay Basin — a grave risk of biota transfer and environmental disaster. The late mayor would say, when pressed about his opposition to the diversion, “What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder,” implying that if God had meant the two bodies of waters to be united, he would have joined them together.

Completion of the Devils Lake outlet without sufficient scientific justification  could also set a dangerous precedent and give renewed vigour to the proponents of the Garrison Diversion.