Canada lobbies against flood plan for Devils Lake

Devils Lake in North Dakota sounds like a source of trouble, and that is exactly what the state’s northern neighbor worries it will be. For the last 800 years, the lake has had no natural outlet. But a man-made one is nearing completion. The 14-mile-long open channel and pipeline will drain rising water from flood-prone Devils Lake to the Sheyenne River and then into the Red River, which flows north into Canada.
Devils Lake in North Dakota sounds like a source of trouble, and that is exactly what the state’s northern neighbor worries it will be.

For the last 800 years, the lake has had no natural outlet. But a man-made one is nearing completion.

The 14-mile-long open channel and pipeline will drain rising water from flood-prone Devils Lake to the Sheyenne River and then into the Red River, which flows north into Canada.
photo courtesy of North dakota water commission
A pipeline will channel water from flood-prone Devils Lake to the Sheyenne River, which flows into the Red River.


The flood-mitigation project has sparked a border war now being fought in Washington. Canadian officials have mounted a last-ditch lobbying campaign to block the $28 million project, after failing to stop North Dakota from moving forward.

Canada argues that the state has not adequately studied the environmental impact of the outlet and that water from Devils Lake will carry with it invasive species and pollutants such as phosphorous into Canada’s Hudson Bay watershed in Manitoba province.

North Dakota officials, including the state’s two senators, Kent Conrad (D) and Byron Dorgan (D), say that the fears are overblown and that the project carries no significant environmental risks.

“We’re not trying to pollute the water that 40 percent of our citizens live alongside of,” said Bruce Engelhardt, the Devils Lake project manager, noting the route the water will travel before reaching Canada.

But embassy officials — who have also tangled with Washington over the ban on Canadian beef and tariffs on softwood lumber — say their top priority now is to convince Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to agree to send the case to the International Joint Commission (IJC), a body created by the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 to resolve disputes between the two countries.

Canada also wants the state not to open the outlet until an IJC case is resolved. The outlet is scheduled to open July 1, although Canadian officials say they believe it may happen sooner.

State Department spokesman Steve Pike said that the issue is being “actively considered” but that no decision has been made.

Without the ability to employ lobbying devices such as fundraising or appeals to home-state senators and congressmen, Canada has had to use other tactics.

A steady stream of Canadian officials has visited Washington to build support for a delay. Officials have written letters to the editor and opinion pieces in U.S.-based newspapers. (A nonprofit group, Friends of the Earth, bought an advertisement in The Hill supporting a delay in the Devils Lake project.)

Manitoba Premier Gary Doer met with lawmakers from April 6 to 8. The environment ministers from Ontario and Quebec have visited, too.

Canadian Ambassador Frank McKenna criticized the Devils Lake project in an opinion piece in The New York Times on May 12, prompting a response by North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven, a Republican.

Last week, Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin said he wanted to talk with President Bush about the issue.

Canadian embassy officials, meanwhile, have made quieter appeals to lawmakers from border states.

“Right now, this is a huge priority,” said Jasmine Panthaky, an embassy spokeswoman. “We have been concentrating our efforts on Devils Lake.”

A box “pops up” when Canada’s U.S. embassy website is accessed that includes a list of letters of support from state and federal lawmakers.

So far, the campaign to build congressional support has met with only limited success. Just two senators — George Voinovich and Mike DeWine, both Ohio Republicans — have written in support of Canada’s position.

“As a representative from the Great Lakes region, I want to be sure that all of this nation’s boundary waters receive the same protections under this Treaty,” DeWine wrote in a May 5 letter to Rice.

Just three representatives — James Oberstar (D-Minn.), Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) and James McDermott (D-Wash.) — have written to Rice.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, and then-Missouri Gov. Bob Holden, a Democrat, have also written the State Department urging an IJC review.

Canadian officials said they’ve been happy with the response they have received on Capitol Hill, although one lobbyist working with the country said lawmakers have been reluctant to support Canada’s position for fear of upsetting Conrad and Dorgan.

By itself, a referral by Rice to the IJC would not block the project, but Canadian officials say they hope such a move increases pressure on North Dakota not to open the outlet.

Hoeven has said that the average IJC review lasts nearly nine years. But Canadian officials have promised to accept an expedited review lasting less than a year. McKenna also promised North Dakota’s congressional delegation that his country would not appeal an unfavorable IJC ruling.

Conrad released a statement in response saying, “We cannot delay this project any longer.”

“There is an urgent need to act. The lake has risen 26 feet and there are roads acting as dams,” Conrad said.

Devils Lake — a name that derives from a Lakota legend —- has swollen in recent years. Increased flooding in the area has caused $400 million in damage.

“We are constantly one big rain storm away from flooding in Devils Lake,” Engelhardt said.

A flood mitigation plan involving the construction of an outlet has been discussed for a decade. The Corps of Engineers designed a $200 million plan, but that effort was abandoned because of cost concerns.

While expressing sympathy about the flooding problems, Canadian officials have also noted that the flooding has worsened as the state has drained wetlands around the lake.