August 15, 2005

North Dakota starts draining lake into Canada

By Roberta Rampton

WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - Despite Canadian fears of
contamination, North Dakota began pumping water on Monday from
its Devils Lake floodlands into a system that leads eventually
into a commercial fishery north of the U.S. border.

The U.S. diversion plan has been a diplomatic sore point
because of Canadian concerns the water could pollute Manitoba's
Lake Winnipeg, the world's 10th largest freshwater lake and
home to a C$25 million fishery.

North Dakota says the water from Devils Lake, which has
swallowed up 90,000 acres of land over 12 years of higher than
normal precipitation, is safe. But Canada fears the land-locked
lake contains high concentrations of salts and other pollutants
along with foreign fish and organisms.

The system diverts water through a canal into the Sheyenne
River, which drains into the Red River, which empties into Lake

Canada and the United States reached an agreement earlier
this month on several modifications to prevent harm to the
Canadian lake. But some critics in Canada were not appeased.

"We did our little modifications on a few things, so we're
back in the operations mode," said Dale Frink, North Dakota's
state water engineer.

"We'll run (the outlet) on and off until November 1," Frink
told Reuters.

The Manitoba and Canadian governments had pushed for a
review of the Devils Lake project by the International Joint
Commission, an independent binational agency set up to resolve
cross-border water disputes.

But North Dakota said the review would take too long, and
governments had already spent more than $400 million moving
homes and building and repairing roads and bridges because of
the flooding.

The Bush administration declined to refer the project to
the commission, and pushed for the agreement that saw North
Dakota add more rocks and gravel to its drain to keep fish and
other organisms from leaving Devils Lake.

Scientists from both countries are studying water quality,
and U.S. and Canadian governments will design and construct a
more advanced filter system based on the studies.

So far, biologists have not found any invasive species such
as zebra mussels in the lake, but they are still waiting on
results on fish viruses and parasites, as well as other
organisms, said Dwight Williamson, manager of water quality at
Manitoba's water stewardship department.

"Clearly, our preference would have been for all of these
results to be in prior to operation," Williamson said.

Frink said the state will drain up to 50 cubic feet of
water per second from the lake this autumn, half the rate that
is allowed under a state health department permit.

"Hopefully the lake will drop some between now and
November, but we'll have to see," he said.

He said the system could drain up to 4 inches of water if
run at its maximum rate from April until November.

Joe Belford, commissioner of North Dakota's flood-damaged
Ramsey County, who led the charge to drain the lake, said he
felt relieved to see the project up and running on Monday.

"It's great that we've got it moving," Belford said. "It's
been a long, long time and a major process."

But he said the political fight about the diversion system
will continue, focusing on additional filtration for the water.

"I'm sure there's going to be a lot of going back and forth
on who's going to pay," Belford said.