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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Devils Lake Dustup

Air Date: Week of

The Canadian government is crying foul over plans to divert flood waters from Devil's Lake, North Dakota, into waters that eventually drain into Lake Winnipeg, home to one of Canada's largest freshwater fisheries. Paul Samyn, a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press, tells host Steve Curwood that Canadians are concerned not only about possible pollution and invasive species problems, but also about the future of a 100-year-old treaty covering boundary water disputes.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood and coming up: your health and your cubicle. But first, out on the plains where things are usually dry, you wouldn’t think there’d be a water glut. But that’s what folks in Devils Lake, North Dakota have on their hands. Devils Lake itself has no natural outlet and it’s risen roughly 25 feet since the early 90s, flooding surrounding farms and homesteads. North Dakota officials would like to pull the plug on the lake, with a diversion channel they’re making to the nearby Cheyenne River. And that has touched off a diplomatic row with Canada, because waters from the Cheyenne cross the border and end up in Lake Winnipeg. Paul Samyn is a reporter with the Winnipeg Free Press. Paul, as you understand it, what’s wrong with the water in Devils Lake?

SAMYN: There’s a couple of things. First and foremost, there are concerns about what’s called an inter-basin transfer, water that normally wouldn’t be part of the Red River Valley potentially is going to come into that system. There’s a concern that it has high phosphorous levels that’s because of agricultural run-off. There’s different things that can get in the water and perhaps there’s different species of little things that you and I can’t see, but microscopes can, that once they’re introduced into, say, a different water basin, could cause problems.

CURWOOD: Diplomacy, in fact, seems to be more of a risk than the environment per se in this dispute. There’s been, what, a hundred years of international cooperation between the United States and Canada about boundary water disputes.

SAMYN: And that leads to Canada and Manitoba’s position that this matter should be reviewed by the International Joint Commission which is a panel that was created by the Boundary Waters Treaty in 1909. There’s three Americans sit on it, three Canadians. Have them look at it, have them do the environmental studies, have them do the assessments and then to make recommendations to Canada and the U.S. as to how this project could go ahead in a fashion which wouldn’t cause any environmental harm.

CURWOOD: What exactly is the Boundary Waters Treaty?

SAMYN: The Boundary Waters Treaty was something signed in 1909, came together Canada and the United States saying we have a long border, we’re good neighbors and we have waters that flow across that border. It’s in both our interests to try and find ways to ensure that what is done on one side of the border doesn’t negatively impact on the other side. From that treaty is the International Joint Commission and they will work on studies; they will work on implementing agreements; they’ll look at overseeing things and make recommendations. It’s not a binding body, but it’s one that I believe has resolved some 51 of 53 trans-boundary water disputes over the past century.

CURWOOD: How could this proposed flow of water from Devils Lake in North Dakota jeopardize the Boundary Waters Treaty between the United States and Canada?

SAMYN: It’s the concern about precedence and what it means for the treaty, a treaty that people on both sides of the border have said has worked. And so what you see is it’s not just Canada and Manitoba that are calling for the State Department and the Bush White House to allow this thing to go the International Joint Commission. It’s Governor Pelenti of Minnesota. It’s the governors of the Great Lake states and that includes New York and Pennsylvania and Ohio who are saying, we are concerned what happens if the Americans allow North Dakota to go ahead with this project, what it means for other trans-boundary water issues. What happens for example, if Ontario at some point wants to do something in the Great Lakes that could cause a concern for the city of Buffalo. They’re saying, we want this treaty which has worked for more than a century to continue working and the concern is that if North Dakota’s allowed to push ahead and do what they want without proper screening, the next time there’s a problem and there are issues along the border, there’s one emerging on the BC-Montana border where a governor of Montana has already written requesting an IGC reference of some actions that are happening in Canada. You know, his concerns won’t perhaps be properly dealt with because Canada’s going to say look, this treaty doesn’t appear to work any more, so we’re not going to respond to your concern.

CURWOOD: Describe for us the importance of Lake Winnipeg to Canada. What’s at stake here?

SAMYN: Lake Winnipeg is one of the largest commercial fisheries in North America. It’s one of the largest lakes in Canada. It lies about two, two and a half hours north of North Dakota and it’s also a lake that right now is stressed by all sorts of things going on. Agricultural run-off, there’s a build-up of algae. Water quality in the lake is not what it should be and so there are scientists here in Canada and government officials which are sort of saying, we need to do something to save the lake. If you people remember what was going on in Lake Eerie some ten, twenty years ago, there are concerns that the water quality in Lake Winnipeg is reaching that kind of dire situation. So, anything coming into what is already a problem is a concern which sort of exaggerates, accentuates Canadian and Manitoba concerns that water from Devils Lake would only add to the problems facing Lake Winnipeg.

CURWOOD: Now, I understand that this issue has, well, got people pretty excited there in your parliament. Can you give me a flavor of some of these reactions?

SAMYN: You know, it’s an issue that’s just recently been heating up. It was a big issue in Manitoba for some time, but it’s now, sort of, landed in parliament’s lap and is making headlines from coast to coast. Last week, a member from Manitoba, Winnipeg, in fact, said two things. One, in frustration that it’s been some 15 months since Canada made the request of the state department for the International Joint Commission to review this. Of course, we haven’t heard from Condoleeza Rice on this matter yet and he lashed out in frustration and suggested that perhaps if the Americans didn’t do what Canada thought they should on the Boundary Waters Treaty, that the American ambassador should freeze in the dark, i.e. we would use trade sanctions and perhaps not ship you our natural gas and oil. And so, we had a little bit of a diplomatic tiff ongoing.

CURWOOD: Paul Samyn is the national reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press. Thanks for taking this time with me today.

SAMYN: Thank you.




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