A rising Devils Lake is causing a flood of concerns

N. Dakota will build a canal to drain excess water into a Canadian river this spring.

North Dakotans are finding themselves between a rock and a wet place.

The rising waters of Devils Lake, near the Canadian border, have already submerged 100,000 acres of farmland, and are prompting a federal buyout of one soggy hamlet.

But American plans to drain the water into Canada - by connecting the lake to the Sheyenne River, whose waters join the northward-flowing Red River - are adamantly opposed.

Canadians say such a diversion could introduce the next "zebra mussel" or other exotic invader into Canadian waters, wreaking havoc on an important fishery and damaging tourism.

That this potential risk is being weighed so seriously is an indication of how significant water diversions have become as an environmental issue.

Changing the course of rivers or diverting waters for other uses have been almost the rule since European settlement of this part of North America, and these have had a lot of "unintended consequences," says Norman Brandson, deputy minister of conservation for Manitoba. "Virtually every state, every province has made these mistakes.... There are only a few stretches of the Missouri River in Montana and Idaho that are what Lewis and Clark would have seen."

The future of water management is "less engineering and more biology," Mr. Brandson says, referring to wetlands restoration. "The risk posed by the Devils Lake project is unacceptably high for Manitoba."

For North Dakotans, the lake has brought a flood of concerns. Since the spring of 1993, the lake has risen 25 feet and expanded from 40,000 to 137,000 acres. Devils Lake has been rising because of a seven-year wet cycle in the northern prairies.

"It has covered thousands of acres of deeded agricultural land, driving farmers and ranchers out of business," says state Sen. Vern Thompson (D) of Minnewaukan, whose district includes the lake.

To date, over half of the 125 inhabitants of Churchs Ferry have accepted a buyout offer from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, he says. "It's an emotional tragedy for those folks."

Over $300 million has been spent to move houses and other structures, relocate telephone and power lines, and elevate roadbeds above the rising waters. State Highway 57, for instance, has been raised 20 feet. Many roadbeds now function as dikes.

"We in North Dakota have decided we're going to manage the water instead of having it manage us," Thompson says.

President Clinton has requested funding from Congress to start construction on a west-end outlet from the lake during fiscal 2001.

At the state level, North Dakota is preparing to start construction late this spring or early this summer on its own temporary outlet, to be finished by the end of the year.

Manitoba Premier Gary Doer observes that the project has "accelerated in the US decision-making process since the fall of 1999."

Some Canadians suggest that the state project may be intended to pressure Washington to act. Dwight Williamson, a water-quality manager with Manitoba's conservation department, says, "We suspect that the US federal government will not want North Dakota proceeding unilaterally."

But David Sprynczynatyk, a North Dakota state water engineer, denies that the state's project is a tactic to put pressure on anyone. "It's to release pressure on Devils Lake. Washington fully knows what we're trying to do."

The diversion has strong public and bipartisan political support within North Dakota.

But Manitobans are lining up with their provincial and federal government in opposing it. "We're very much in tune with Manitoba's position," says Bill Barlow, mayor of Gimli, a community of 5,000 on the shore of Lake Winnipeg, the world's 10th-largest freshwater lake, fed by the Red River. "We don"t want to see anything introduced that will have a negative impact" on Manitoba's $200 million (Canadian) fishing industry and $700 million tourism industry. Like many of his compatriots, he calls for more study of the ecosystem.

Larry Milian, vice president for fisheries of the Manitoba Wildlife Federation, worries that striped bass, an aggressive fish introduced into Devils Lake during the 1970s, could cause trouble for native species in Canadian waters. He also expresses skepticism about watershed manipulations in general. "Mother Nature always has the last call," he says.

Harry Cook Sr., a longtime fisherman on Lake Winnipeg, has issued a statement expressing concern not only about hazards to fish but about salt, mercury, and other pollutants known to be in Devils Lake water. "We do not need foreign water to jeopardize our livelihoods," he said.

Mr. Sprynczynatyk acknowledges these concerns but says, "We wish we didn't have to build it either, but we've got a lake that has been rising for seven or eight years."

North Dakotans warn that without an artificial outlet, the lake will eventually overflow naturally, from its saltier eastern end, with even worse environmental consequences. Manitobans - who uniformly express sympathy for North Dakota's plight, and know something about Red River floods themselves - counter that the current wet cycle shows signs of ending. Moreover, they say, the artificial outlet is likely to lower the lake's level by less than a foot.

"That's a perspective that people can have," Thompson says. "But in my lifetime, we're not going to see Devils Lake at a lower level than we have now."

He adds, "I am confident that with a controlled flow from the west end of Devils Lake we will meet the water-quality standards" the US is presently required to meet for water flowing into Canada's Red River.

Eventually, the issue may end up before the International Joint Commission, which referees water disputes between the two countries.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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