about a North Dakota diversion project is poisoning Canada-U.S.
By Mary Janigan
Published May 16, 2005
There has always been something quaintly reassuring about
the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. That stolid Republican,
William Taft, was president when Canada and the U.S. inked
their remarkable pact. Sir Wilfrid Laurier was prime minister
-- although Britain signed on behalf of its bustling dominion.
The two neighbours vowed to preserve the quality and quantity
of their shared water, creating an International Joint
Commission to arbitrate disputes. Through peace and war
and the Depression, it has worked: 51 of the 53 joint
references were resolved by mutual agreement.
And then along came North Dakota and its rash decision
to lower Devils Lake. That closed, befouled so-called
"sub-basin" about 100 km from the Manitoba border
has been flooding its banks since a cycle of rainy weather
began in 1993: the volume of water, tainted with agricultural
chemical run-off, has quadrupled. Up to now, it's been
a North Dakota problem. In the late 1990s, the U.S. Army
Corps of Engineers launched a lengthy study of diversion
proposals. Daunted by the complexity and cost of the corps'
approach, North Dakota adopted its own unilateral, far
cheaper project to dig an outlet canal to the Sheyenne
River, a tributary of the Red River that meanders north
into Canada and Lake Winnipeg. The state proceeded without
its own environmental study -- and ignored many of the
corps' planned safeguards, including a pricey sand filter.
Pumping starts in mid-June.
North Dakota's neighbours, on both sides of the border,
are horrified. In January 2004, citing the treaty, Canada
asked the U.S. for a joint reference to the IJC. The eight
Great Lakes states plus Missouri fervently agreed, warning
of pollution and invasive species. Manitoba has even joined
two local environmental groups before the North Dakota
Supreme Court, challenging the water discharge permit.
"This province historically has tried to avoid escalating
disputes," says University of Manitoba political
scientist Paul Thomas. "Our actions now are a sign
of cumulative frustration."
So far, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has not
replied to Canada's request. Ottawa believes this would
be the first refusal to make a reference in the treaty's
history. North Dakota argues that it offered to send the
scheme to the IJC in 2002. But that was the army corps'
plan -- and its environmental assessment wasn't complete.
So Canada said the reference was premature.
Now, Ottawa is scrambling to stop this potential catastrophe.
(There are even two distinct fish parasites in that ancient
pothole.) Ambassador Frank McKenna and Treasury Board
President Reg Alcock have asked for a one-year delay for
IJC scrutiny. The IJC's Canadian chairman, Herb Gray,
told Maclean's that the commission would meet any time
limit in a referral. And Ottawa is mulling last-minute,
high-level legal action in Washington, such as a request
for an injunction based on treaty violations.
But there are larger issues in this sadness: half of
our 300 transboundary rivers flow south. And Montana is
now objecting to B.C. plans to mine coal under a vital
riverbed. "If a state can violate the treaty, then
a province can and all of a sudden you have kneecapped
the treaty," Alcock told Maclean's. "We cannot
allow this to happen." North Dakota must not drown
that 1909 hallmark of civility in a chemical swamp.
Mary Janigan is a political and policy writer.